For the first time since he officially assumed the GM mantle, Trent Baalke must face the draft with a 49ers team in decline. Whether last year's .500 record represents an aberration, or the beginnings of a more dismal trend, we will not know until the new season plays out. Meanwhile, the manner in which Baalke manages this year's draft may provide us with clues about what the general manager himself thinks about the state of his roster.
Predictably, Baalke and the rest of the 49ers brass have remained tight-lipped when responding to questions about organizational intentions regarding possible picks, deflecting direct questions with the usual arsenal of clichés, a "we feel good about" here, an "I'm excited about" there. Presumably, Jed York still carries the torch for a Super Bowl victory every season. He can afford to be in denial. Trent Baalke cannot.
Lately, with the Niners' current need for a wide receiver, many have focused on the ill-fated A.J. Jenkins pick, one of Baalke's biggest faux pas. Admittedly, Mr. Jenkins did not work out so well, but that fact should not obscure the main problem with the pick: not only did Baalke err in selecting the player, but he erred egregiously in where he selected him. Many other respected NFL personnel experts had Jenkins going in the third round. Maybe the 49ers could not find a team with whom to trade down. Maybe they tried, with no takers. Still, staying in that slot and selecting Jenkins with it seemed to throw off the entire gestalt of that 2012 49er draft. Only Joe Looney remains, and even he could be gone by September.
I bring up the 2012 fiasco not to belabor its shortcomings, but as an example of the kind of draft a rebuilding team must not repeat just three years later. Fans can afford to have draft crushes, and many expect broken hearts on draft days. But general managers cannot afford to fixate on one player at one position as his team's savior. That sort of fixation can break not only hearts, but rosters, especially if, a la 2012, it undermines the remainder of an entire draft.
Baalke, we can hope, may have learned the lessons of fixation versus flexibility. The last two drafts, he has traded up, moved down, and stood pat with certain picks. True, the individual players haven't all blossomed yet, but neither has he blundered as badly as 2012. Rather, he seems to have a range of players at several positions in mind for every pick, and a more savvy sense about what to give up when trading up and what to get back when trading down. He manipulates the draft not just for manipulation's sake, but because he has multiple possible purposes for each move he makes. And he, more often than not, drafts for value.
What does all this mean for 2015? Well, this team has so many needs that Baalke himself need not feel compelled to fixate on any one position, let alone any one player. He can truly draft for value at almost any position, or trade around to get it. If he does trade up far into the first round, the subsequent selection better damn well turn into an all-pro to compensate for the opportunity-loss of the traded-away picks it took to get there. On the other hand, if a valued player plummets, a trade such as the 2013 swap that cost only an extra third-rounder to move up and nab Eric Reid might make sense. Again, the watchword is flexibility. And, at pick fifteen, should a player remain on the board that has tempted some other team into smitten fixation, then trade down with that besotted franchise. And so on through the rounds.
Currently, with nine picks, I expect Baalke to aim for three immediate-impact players, three starters-in-waiting, and three long-shots who last later than they might have otherwise because previously injured and/or psychologically dubious. The good old days when one could find so-called "sleepers" have gone the way of landline phones, because most teams now have extensive scouting departments and data bases. Still, that doesn't stop fans from dreaming.
However, though the Niners have nine picks now, I don't necessarily expect them to stay with nine, or to end up with them in the same slots. Over the years, the teams that trade the most on draft days generally win the most later. See the New England Patriots. So I hope the 49ers do hazard some trades, not only to make the team better, but because wheelin' and dealin' makes the draft much more fun to watch.
Yes, I would rather see the 49ers trade down a couple times to add more picks, because I think this rebuild requires a large influx of talent, and, the more picks a team has, the greater the odds they will hit on some of them. However, should Baalke trade up a couple times to secure one or two perceived sure-fire studs, that may mean he sees the current roster as talented enough to make another Super Bowl run with just a tipping-point player or two. Baalke's heart, and his boss's rhetoric, may yearn for such a flashy scenario, but reality may demand a more prosaic approach to this year's draft.
A couple of points about existing mock drafts and their concomitant comments: Those mockers who have the 49ers taking a receiver in the first round seldom mention that the Niners prefer wideouts who willingly block. Still other mocks have Baalke selecting position-of-needers with projected upsides heretofore barely proven on an actual football field. These mocked selections fly in the facemask of Baalke's repeated assertions after last year's draft that he seeks to select "good football players." I know, Baalke might say anything, but, still, his thickest smokescreens usually come before drafts, not after.
Finally, looming over this year's draft, and potentially influencing it, is the new coaching staff, one with which Baalke has not yet shared a draft-day war room. How much, if at all, might Tomsula nudge his GM? And how much will the GM actually heed? For instance, Tomsula has recently said that he's "excited about" his current group of defensive lineman, which is Baalke-speak for "draft me a damned defensive lineman or two, including one who can rush the passer." On the other hand, if Tomsula truly doesn't realize that he has just damned his already-existing defensive line with faint praise because he doesn't even recognize the cliché as such, then heaven help 49er fans everywhere. Because, whomsoever Baalke selects, Tomsula and his crew must mold those youngsters into on-field pros. Will they? Only Jed York's shadow, pacing the lonely hidden byways of his new stadium, knows.