Prior to the 2014 draft, mockers had settled into a fairly consistent consensus based on Niner team needs. Prognosticators predicted the prospectors would select wide receiver, cornerback, and pass-rusher in the early rounds, while perhaps selecting from among the safety, running back, center, and/or linebacker positions later in the draft. Likely the 49ers, with such a loaded roster, would trade up to take their targeted players.
Indeed, at the start of the day, the 49ers did pick, in order, a wide receiver, a cornerback, and a pass rusher. Some experts thought the Niners "reached" in selecting Ellington so early, but … wait just one blasted minute. The 49ers selected receiver, cornerback, and pass-rusher at the start of the draft's third day, not its first. In fact, if you flip-flopped that third day with the draft's first two, you would have come much closer to the team-needs order of picks as previously posted by the consensus.
This seeming-backwards priority the Niners gave to their draft selections initially baffled bloggers and puzzled pundits. The commentariot used words like "surprised," "shocked," and "confused." Even the normally unflappable Jaws dropped his jaws. Mike Singletary jostled his trousers. The 49ers themselves restored order somewhat when they revealed that their first-round choice, Jimmie Ward, although nominally a safety, would compete for the nickel corner spot, and that, through the Brandon Lloyd signing and Stevie Johnson trade, they had well bolstered the receiver position. Fans gained further succor when the overall draft grades arrived, and the consensus again anointed the Niners' selectors as once-and-future draft-gurus. The 49er faithful resumed their daily lives, saved from undo anxiety by Mel Kiper, Mike Mayock, and the local Matts.
However what might this gap – some would even say "chasm" – between the pre-draft consensus and the ensuing actuality tell us about the Niners organization, and about our misperceptions?
The "stacked roster" theory.
According to this theory, the 49ers should have bundled picks to move up and take future stars, since eleven rookies had no chance of making the team's final roster anyway. Compared to many teams, the Niners may indeed have a stacked roster. Indubitably, they have a superb set of starters, with some solid second-stringers, which allows for the perception of a loaded roster. In truth, the team hasn't fielded top-to-bottom depth since approximately a quarter century ago. Few other teams, in the salary-cap era, have either. The salient point being, regardless of what I or others might think, the 49ers themselves do not believe they, as of yet, have a stacked roster. As Baalke himself said at his post-draft presser, the team doesn't want just good starters and second-stringers, but, rather, "fifty-three … good football players." Baalke may have said this, partly, to cover for the inability, during this year's third day, to trade for further future picks. But the statement also fits with the team's overall philosophy.
Yes, the 49ers intend to buck the salary-cap constraints that cripple some franchises and relegate others to "windows." Notice Baalke did not say "fifty-three stars," or "fifty-three studs," or "fifty-three Richard Shermans." No. He talks about "good football players." How might a roster filled with these stalwarts help to maintain a perpetual contender? By having at hand players to replace the fallen, whether those gone from attrition, age, injury, or, that's right, free agency. Or gone from internal competition, and Harbalk does believe that such competition will surely winnow out the best fifty-three.
The "windows" theory.
In other words, the 49ers attempt to manage the salary cap by signing their elite players to reasonable contract extensions before said starters blow up big time, and by having replacements at the ready for the starters who do exit, ergo 2014's dozen draftees. The team may or may not currently be in a championship window, but the organization's honchos themselves refuse to acknowledge the stultifying confines of any such mere framed glass. Rather like the infamous clip of Jim Mora ranting about the playoffs, Harbalk responds to any windows questions with the equivalent of "Windows? Windows! What windows?"
This way of running a team may prove a quixotic quest or simply a hardheaded folly, but one must give the outfit credit for guts, ambition, and try. They aint afraid to compete. And they aint afraid to fail. Nor do they quail from going against the consensus grain on draft day -- no matter how many windmill-blades, or second-guessers, might later bop them on their noggins.
Yes, I confess, I too had draft crushes this year, a certain receiver taken in the top twelve picks, and a certain cornerback that went in the top twenty-five. Alas, as they do every year, the 49ers dashed my dreams. At one point in the process, around early February, with the bitter taste of Seahawk celebration still stinging my tongue, I even dreamed the 49ers might use their bounty of picks to move up and secure both players. Alackaday all over again. How pretty, how sweet, how exhilarating to see a fast, streaking 49er wideout stretch out his full length, with, say, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas in forlorn pursuit, to gather in an eighty-yard touchdown pass, his third of this season's conference championship game. Our very own red-and-gold offensive rookie-of-the-year! Yes! And, then, next game, our very own defensive rookie-of-the-year assures our Super Bowl victory with an interception in the end zone, this time for our side!
Well, so do off-seasons dare us to dream, and drafts lure us into the illusion that every player our team selects will become a future star, our team envied throughout the football world, and our fanatic fandom validated by a Super Bowl win witnessed by millions. However, the gridiron game itself, with very little input from us other than our eyeballs, compels a sometimes cold-hearted realism from the men who actually manage it. (And, yes, they're mostly still men.) Notice that when the 49ers finally did take a receiver, in the fourth round, they chose one, in part, because he blocks. I admit, mea culpa, that the willingness to block was not a high priority for any of my draft-crush receivers. But it was for the 49ers.
No, the 49ers did not select many prima donnas. No internationally known stars for them. Television commentators did not gush over their picks for hours ahead of time as with, say, Johnny Manziel. In fact, while I admire Manziel as a football player, with regard to image-burnishing, the Niners had a kind of anti-Manziel draft. Few had even heard of their first-round pick, Jimmie Ward, and, hard upon the pick's announcement, one could hear a thudding chorus of "Huh?" resound throughout the Bay Area. Even the 49ers' most well-known pick, probably Carlos Hyde, does not dazzle with dancelike moves, but rather runs hard and heavy. They also picked on that second day a center, a linebacker, a guard. You can almost hear those new recruits, and those they will soon hit, grunt.
In other words, as per their philosophy, the Niners, for the most part, selected a group of grinders. "Grind" is a favorite Harbaugh term, and one often gets the feeling that the coach would much rather win games by three points instead of three touchdowns. "Grinders" may well serve as Harbaugh's synonym for Baalke's "good football players." Whether those two do or do not often speak we do not know, but, rest assured, they remain on the same wave-length. Hard-nosed, gritty, old-school. Some may find the Harbalk way not very pretty, glamourless, even inelegant. But, as this draft demonstrates, the 49ers believe in the fundamentals of power football, and in the draft room, as well as on the field of play, they continue to grind.