Trent Baalke rises every morning and goes to work in an air-conditioned office set in a state-of-the-art facility. On some days he flits across the country and rubs elbows with NFL power brokers. He gets to hobnob with Jed York, the 49ers' popular young owner. Above all, unlike fans who must content themselves with mere wishes, Baalke gets to act out his football obsessiveness. He makes trades, decides on roster moves, presides over personnel. Nice work if you can get it.
However, over the last few seasons, Baalke has shown a marked diffidence with regard to maintaining his current position. He undermines coaches ("somewhere in there he said we're going to run the football"), displays obsequious behavior toward his boss, and rattles off (sometimes intentionally) indecipherable statements/leaks to the press. Still, most fans might overlook Mr. Baalke's less-than-ideal people skills if the general manager excelled at his most important responsibility: constructing a quality NFL roster. Ahem. Even Trent himself would probably admit, though maybe not publicly, that he needs to do better. The current 49ers' roster lacks top-end talent.
49er faithfulness dictates that we fans support our flailing leader, just as we support our failing team. If our hero Trent does not soon extract himself from his recent rut, the firing rounds next time may well include his own head. How might our main man rouse himself?
He could start with upcoming drafts, and with a blunt assessment of his own strengths and weaknesses when conducting same. Yes, I hear some of you Seahawk fans chortle. You ask, "What strengths?" Trent does have a few. For instance, he generally adds value with his draft-day wheeling and dealing, adding extra picks while stampeding draftniks into mad scrambles to reconfigure their big boards. The problems, as I've written before, pop up when the moments arrive to actually make those selections.
Mr. Baalke also has a few positional groups where he does OK, mainly defensive back and d-line pluggers. Although he has admittedly lavished high draft choices on safeties, he also has a knack for adding serviceable players, whether through free agency or mid/late round picks, at cornerback and interior defensive line. As well, he has picked up a couple of sterling inside linebackers in the third round, Borland (retired) and Bowman (half the credit here to Scott McCloughlan). Trent also likes to draft running backs and tight ends. He seems to have biffed on second-round tight end McDonald, but may have hit on a top-end back in second-rounder Carlos Hyde.
Realistically, the 49ers have the opportunity, during the next few years, to have their own first-round picks positioned in the top half of that round. I think they should use these future premium picks to select players from position groups at which Trent Baalke does not excel. They certainly don't need to use them on more safeties, precisely because Trent may have a bias toward drafting defensive backs as his go-to comfort-zone picks. Baalke is on record as saying he likes to draft "good football players." Well, yes, any NFL teams needs a batch of good players to fill out a successful roster. But great teams also need top-tier players and Mr. York insists on fielding championship contenders. With winning teams, many GMs fall into the trap of filling in around the edges, while also assuring owners and fans that quality young replacements lie in wait, poised for starter status. This placation often abruptly halts when the winning players leave, leaving also the personnel emperors with no clothes, and their teams with deflated records.
To be fair to Baalke, it's much easier to find premium players when you're not drafting in the bottom few slots in each round. And, frankly, at this point I would settle for a few more quality multi-year starters from any source whatsoever, let alone Pro-Bowlers. Nevertheless, my hope remains that with some probable top-sixteen draft slots in the next few years, Baalke will add some standout players, whether he is ultimately around to witness their development or not. Of course, Mr. Baalke needs to find superior players throughout the drafts, but the odds of securing difference-makers accelerate as you ascend the draft board. To succeed, he may have to draft against his own grain, and make adjustments to his historic tendencies. In other words, self-scout. As an example, let's take the 49ers' first pick in the upcoming 2016 draft.
First, keep it simple. This is not the time or place to try and outsmart everybody else. As I write, the 49ers have the overall 7th selection. The consensus top eight players include two quarterbacks, two defensive linemen, two offensive linemen, a safety/cornerback (Jalen Ramsey), and an inside linebacker (Myles Jack). Despite the fact that Ramsey and Jack are two of my personal draft crushes, following the against-Baalke's-grain reasoning, I eliminate them both from consideration as the 49ers' seventh-slot pick. Both these admitted blue-chippers play positions that coincide with Baalke's evaluative strong suits.
So that leaves us with the other six. They all also happen to play positions of 49er needs. One should be available at pick number seven. The 49ers could take one. Mathematically, of course, all six could be gone by pick seven. In that case, the 49ers might consider trading down with a team that covets one of the remaining great eight. Simple, huh? Well, maybe a bit too simple:
Second, consult with people persons. Once again, Baalke tends toward evaluating players more by the lengths of their wingspans rather than the contents of their characters. And, although he has mastered the art of staying in Jed York's good graces, he sometimes seems tone-deaf to others. Outsiders often overrate the importance of "leadership qualities" in professional locker rooms. Nevertheless, the 49ers' organization, dubbed by some wags "Alcatraz South," does not now need another Aldon Smith. Bill Walsh once had Dr. Harry Edwards and John McVay, among others, to help with these matters. Likewise, Baalke should heed his people people.
Three, confer with Chip Kelly regarding how potential draft choices might fit his system/schemes. True, Kelly does not bring the same cuddly-bear sweetness as Jim Harbaugh, an affable charmer who lacked drive and so seldom asserted himself. No doubt Trent still misses Jimmy H's easy-going demeanor. Still, it behooves Baalke to work with Kelly, because, this time, if the new coach's regime goes south the general manager may well go with him. Also, especially on offense, Kelly's system requires specific types of players. For instance, they must be able to read those infernal placards that assistants wave on the sidelines, looking like lame intertitles for Keystone Cops comedies. Seriously, with regard to rebuilding the offensive line, Baalke has heretofore preferred mostly mashers, while Kelly's system thrives on in-shape dashers who can think on their feet.
Kelly's input might be the one justifiable argument for trading up from seven to grab a quarterback, depending on the cost, if Chip thinks one of the available passers perfectly suits his offense. Oops, as I write Philadelphia has just traded with Cleveland for the number two overall pick, presumably to take a quarterback, following the Rams presumptive selection of same at pick number one. So I deleted the rest of this paragraph. However, the reasoning still applies, up and down the Niners' draft board, in every round. As an obvious example, given Kelly's system, Trent should probably not select five fullbacks.
Speaking of trades, should the 49ers trade down with their first pick? Sure, depending how the prior selections shake out, and if a couple of their targeted players remain on the board, they might move down a couple spots, pick up an extra selection, and still get a player they want, as with Arik Armstead last year. But, again, they should take care not to outsmart themselves, and end up missing out completely on a potential game-changer.
Twelve total picks sounds impressive, but not so much when you consider that most of them land in the late rounds, some untradeable. Still, Baalke does some of his best work maneuvering around on draft days, much of it after the hyped players have headed for their press conferences, and these extra choices give him the freedom to swap. This also makes the draft more fun for fans. Here, in the middle rounds, Trent can indulge his penchant for medical redshirts and offensive linemen that seldom pan out.
To their belated credit, the 49er brass seems to have at last begun the long slog from the denial phase, and have actually uttered the r-word, "rebuild." Maybe they finally realize that the easily scapegoated Jim Tomsula was not 2015's only, or even primary, problem. A dismal season such as the last one can foster clarity. Let us hope our heroes can acquire more clear-headed realism going forward. I have not yet given up on all the youngsters from the previous couple of drafts, but suspect that Yolke may still somewhat overrate their own roster. We shall see. The draft should tell us much.
Now, if Mr. Baalke can in future years draft with wisdom instead of one-upmanship, heed his personnel people, confer with Chip, and cede final say on all draft choices to Jed, they may all just help refresh the franchise. So, go to it, Trent. We are the faithful, not the fickle. We bleed red and gold. We stick through thick and thin. We may whine, grouse, complain, and oftentimes talk smack. But, so long as you're our general man, we still have got your back.