San Francisco 49ers

Trent Baalke is bulletproof

Trent Baalke San Francisco 49ers

With an 8-8 season leading to severe changes to the coaching staff, some wondered whether Trent Baalke was on the proverbial “hot seat.” After all, Jed York’s mindset is SB-or-bust, as he explained in the press conference announcing Jim Harbaugh’s “mutual” departure.

Based on what we’ve seen thus far from the 2015 NFL Draft, Baalke seems safe. Like, ridiculously safe for a high-ranking professional sports executive.

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Day One

Baalke’s first pick was Arik Armstead, who fits the 49ers’ defensive scheme but almost certainly won’t be ready to step into a major role for a considerable amount of time. Jim Tomsula mentioned how he’d need to hit the weight room, and Armstead felt the need to defend himself against draft analysts who called him “raw” in his first conference call.

Bottom line: The middle of the first round is usually where instant contributors are found, but the 49ers made a pick with an eye toward 2016 and beyond.

***

Pundits: “There’s no way Baalke will go through another draft without taking a wide receiver early.”

Baalke: “Watch me, suckers!”

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Day Two

Baalke drafted a small-school safety in Jaquiski Tartt, a former high school teammate of Jimmie Ward. I hadn’t heard of Tartt before the draft, but taking a safety this early didn’t surprise me all that much. Antoine Bethea turns 31 in July and his cap number skyrockets after 2015. Eric Reid is smart, he’s a great spokesman for the team, he’s the 49ers’ player rep, and he looks great in a uniform. However, he’s also really concussion-prone and didn’t perform extraordinarily well last season (five touchdowns allowed, six penalties). And behind those two (before the selection of Tartt, anyway): Craig Dahl.

Eli Harold in the third round was a pick that might have made even more sense than Tartt in the second. There’s no position group with more volatility than the 49ers’ outside linebackers. Aldon Smith, Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks could combine for 35 sacks, but it’s not exactly a trio you’d trust with the keys to your house and car for a weekend. Harold is a rarity in this 49ers draft, a player who was projected by many to go earlier than he did.

Bottom line: Baalke’s record as a personnel evaluator is pretty strong on the defensive side. Besides Corey Lemonier, it’s difficult to think of a healthy defender he’s added who wasn’t at least semi-productive. Neither Tartt nor Harold will be asked to start, but both should play quite a bit. I was expecting an inside linebacker by this point, but Baalke drafts to the beat of his own drummer, as we saw today.

One last thing: After reading the transcripts from both players’ conference calls, the 49ers added a couple really good kids. Tartt admitted he didn’t think he’d get drafted before the third round and spoke about competing with his good friend Ward, and Harold described how his leadership qualities evolved over his college career.

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Day Three

I’m writing this before the seventh round, where the 49ers have three picks. Their first pick (fourth round — No. 117 overall) was a tight end, Blake Bell, who only spent one year at the position after playing quarterback for three years at Oklahoma. This is another pick with an eye toward 2016, because the 49ers currently have Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, Derek Carrier and Garrett Celek. That is, unless the 49ers see Bell as a potential backup quarterback.

With their second fourth-rounder they chose Mike Davis, a running back out of South Carolina that I mocked to the 49ers in the fifth round. Of all the picks the 49ers made, this one probably got the most love on social media — fans adore running backs. In my mind it’s probably a tie between Davis and Harold when it comes to 2015 impact. Still, Davis projects to be a backup for Carlos Hyde, and might have trouble getting many snaps with Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter already on the roster.

What, no wide receiver? No #TeamACL? Baalke remedied that with his third pick in the fourth round, Georgia Tech’s DeAndre Smelter. Smelter tore his ACL on Nov. 29 and spent more time in college playing baseball (outfielder and pitcher), which means he checks off all of Baalke’s boxes that aren’t related to arm-length and the size of a player’s hands. Smelter will probably be a redshirt guy (translation: he won’t play) in 2015, and perhaps there’s more upside because he’s still finding himself as a football player after several years spent on another sport.

Then the fifth round rolls around, and after the 49ers traded back with the Colts, Baalke selected a PUNTER. Yes, with two more rounds remaining, Baalke took a PUNTER. His name: Bradley Pinion, as Baalke just sent a message to Andy Lee. The message? You’re slated to make $13 million over the next four years, but only 18% of your contract is guaranteed, and you probably aren’t going to get that remaining 82%. I’m not surprised that the 49ers are looking to replace Lee, who’s making top-five money in terms of annual salary compared to other punters and had a down year compared to his usual standards. Still, the fifth round? A very strange selection, made by someone who’s comfortable with his current roster on the offensive and defensive sides, apparently.

The sixth round brought an offensive tackle from Boston College that NFL.com said would probably go undrafted. Ian Silberman’s “feet seem to move at half speed,” but who the hell knows. Maybe he’s awful, maybe he’s the next Alex Boone … without the attention-seeking personality.

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Bottom line: That’s the way this whole process is, really. We don’t know anything now, we won’t know much after a year, and it’ll probably take two or three years to fully realize what the 49ers did over these last three days. But if Baalke was truly on the hot seat, one would imagine he’d draft for immediate need.

  • Michael Wilhoite is still the starter at ILB next to NaVorro Bowman.
  • The team’s No. 3 receiver is still Bruce Ellington (or Jerome Simpson).
  • Shareece Wright is still a projected starter at cornerback.
  • Boone and Brandon Thomas are still the projected starters at the guard spots.

Unless there are injuries or cap casualties, the 49ers haven’t added one clear starter in this draft. Well, besides Pinion (boy, it’s going to be weird if/when the guy sending punts into the sky for the 49ers is someone other than Lee). Teams need depth, and Baalke’s ability to look beyond Week 1 of the 2015 season could bode well for the 49ers’ future. Desperation moves rarely work out all that well.

However, it’s interesting that the 49ers (meaning the Yorks) are comfortable with a conservative growth portfolio (earn compensatory picks due to losing more free agents than you sign; draft lots of upside guys and backups who can spend the year learning; draft at least one ACL guy who can marinate on an injury list for a full year, repeatedly deal for picks in later picks), and trust Baalke’s process to this extent. Baalke was in a leadership position for three NFC title games and has a roster full of “wait and see” guys who could be good/great someday (partly because so many tried-and-true veterans have left the team in the last few months). In return, he has earned extraordinary job security and the faith of his owner, who trusts that Baalke’s process will someday pay Super Bowl dividends.

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