There you have it. Trent Baalke should be around for quite a while, and last night he drive home with a belly full of chicken mole, chile relleno or Mexican Pizza, depending on how generous Jed York was feeling.
Unless you’re of the opinion that Scot McCloughan built the team that went 13-3, you’re probably pretty happy right now. Also, if you think McCloughan built this team, you also have to give credit to Mike Nolan for his stint as GM and coach, as well as Mike Singletary.
You’d also be wrong. Baalke deserves the credit, and the extension.
It’s not hard in the NFL to amass a team with some talented players. College football provides a glorious minor league system in which all the games are televised. An NBA team may whiff on a few years’ worth of draft picks, make a couple bad trades and free agent signings, and be left almost barren. But in the NFL, if your team is totally devoid of talent, your GM may very well be comatose.
The key is to form your collection of NFL talent into something cohesive, dynamic and scheme-ready. The 49ers were in much better shape this year on the coaching side with Jim Harbaugh and friends — as you may or may not have heard — but there were also several key personnel tweaks that turned this band of 6-10’ers into a team that came within a play or two of getting to the Super Bowl.
Here are the Top 10 personnel moves the 49ers have made since Baalke took over as general manager:
10. Chris Culliver (Draft: 3rd Round)
All in all, a very good rookie season for Culliver. Depending on what the 49ers do about Carlos Rogers, Culliver could be the No. 2 corner next season. They’ll be better off if he’s still the No. 3 in 2012, but Culliver can play.
9. Jonathan Goodwin (Free agent: 3 years, $10.9 million, $4 million guaranteed)
Remember when people were begging for the 49ers to sign Olin Kreutz? Instead, the Niners signed this former Saints center, and New Orleans signed Kreutz two days later. Kreutz left the game entirely in November, and Goodwin started all 18 games for the 49ers. Goodwin is a good center — not great — who had some trouble at times in pass protection. But considering where the Niners were after Eric Heitmann’s career ended and David Baas signed a big contract with the Giants, the addition of Goodwin solidified the middle of the Niners’ o-line.
8. Bruce Miller (Draft: 7th Round)
He was a dominant d-lineman in college, now he’s a fullback, and he’ll always be a ginger. What’s not to like?
7. Blake Costanzo (Free agent: $750,000)
Partial credit for this signing goes to Brad Seely, who coached Costanzo in Cleveland. Costanzo didn’t just make plays all year, he helped provide a tough, quirky, maniacal edge to a part of the team that has flown under the radar for years. As David Fucillo of Niners Nation wrote, “It is hard to really give one particular player credit with the #TonyMontana squad, but you could argue Costanzo played a key role in bringing a certain mentality to the unit.” Tony Montana, Tony Montana, Tony Montana, Tony Montana…
6. Donte Whitner (Free agent: 3 years, $11.75 million, $4 million guaranteed)
Whitner says he knew the entire defensive playbook well enough to call plays the day after signing his contract. His famous hit on Pierre Thomas was what everyone will remember from Whitner’s first season in San Francisco, but he was incredible against the run all season and served as the “quarterback” of the defense. As far as free agent safeties go, Whitner wasn’t all that expensive either.
5. Nate Clements, Manny Lawson, Takeo Spikes, Aubrayo Franklin (Adios)
Make no mistake, none of these four are bad players (and the 49ers wanted to keep Franklin, although it was almost lucky they didn’t since Ray McDonald had a much better season). However, last summer the 49ers knew which veterans they absolutely had to build around (Justin Smith and Patrick Willis), and which vets they were fine with waiving good-bye to: Clements (a corner who was great against the run but couldn’t cover anybody not named Larry Fitzgerald in his time with the Niners), Lawson (never quite the pass rusher the Niners hoped) and Spikes (who talks a great game but still hasn’t made the playoffs).
Last year, the 49ers’ regular starters on defense included Clements (CB), Lawson (LB), Spikes (LB), Franklin (DT), Shawntae Spencer (CB) and Reggie Smith/Taylor Mays (S). That’s right, over HALF the defense changed from last season to this season in terms of the unit’s biggest contributors. Defense is what drove this team to the heights they enjoyed in 2011, and the offense was also better a year after Singletary tried his best to sabotage it with Jimmy Raye’s help. Why are we supposed to give Singletary and McCloughan credit again?
4. Dashon Goldson (Free agent: 1 year, $1 million base salary)
The 49ers may have irked Goldson by signing Madieu Williams at the beginning of August, but they got The Hawk anyway — and at a bargain (and that’s why I have Goldson’s signing two spots ahead of Whitner’s, even though in my opinion Whitner is the better player). Goldson’s 2011 season was a highlight film, chocked full of interceptions and ball-dislodging hits … which means he’ll be much more expensive this off-season as he hits free agency once again.
3. Carlos Rogers (Free agent: 1 year, $4.25 million)
Baalke and the Niners waited out the free agency market, and Rogers fell into their laps. Known as a talented yet underachieving player with hands of stone, Rogers stepped in and starred as the team’s No. 1 cornerback all season long. In other words, Rogers was the anti-Clements, and Baalke’s reputation as a GM who stealthily built a team with discarded first-round picks grew.
2. David Akers (Free agent: 3 years, $9 million)
Joe Nedney had a good run, but Akers made everyone forget about the other left-footer. Akers was money from 50-plus all season, converted an onside kick against the Giants in Week 10 and took advantage of the new/old kickoff rule (50.5% of his kickoffs went for touchbacks). After how Akers performed this year, the Niners — who for years considered special teams a necessary evil as opposed to a potential weapon — may never neglect his position again.
1. Aldon Smith (Draft: 1st Round)
If you’re judging first round picks on immediate name value, Baalke whiffed here. Luckily for the 49ers, Smith’s production trumped that of every player in the draft, save for Cam Newton, Von Miller and perhaps Andy Dalton. Smith had 14 sacks in his rookie year, the most any 49er has tallied in a season since newly-inducted Hall-of-Famer Chris Doleman had 15 back in 1998. Smith stepped in and gave a defense that was already strong up the middle an unstoppable weapon from the outside. He improved not just throughout the year, but throughout each game — to the point where the most dangerous job in the United States changed from fisherman to “quarterback facing the 49ers in the fourth quarter.”
Honorable Mention: One of the moves Baalke didn’t make arguably could’ve made it on this list in retrospect: not trading for Kevin Kolb. Harbaugh wanted to keep Alex Smith, and it was a good thing the 49ers went in that direction instead of the trade route — not just because Smith had a very good season and saved his career as an NFL starter, or because Kolb didn’t have a dominant year. To get Kolb, the Niners would’ve been forced to send over an impact defensive player (Patrick Willis?) AND draft picks. Imagine where the 49ers would be if they went all-in for Michael Vick’s former backup … actually, let’s not.