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Here is a link to my Sunday column taking an overview of the entire 49ers’ draft. The full text runs below:

SANTA CLARA — Let’s start with a question. Actually it’s THE KEY QUESTION for the 49ers:

Did they use the correct strategy in the now-concluded draft?

Before we answer the question — and, hey, doesn’t this feel like the essay part of a midterm? — well, before we answer, it’s essential to define the Niners’ strategy. And, believe me, they had a strategy.

The 49ers identified obvious needs. You could make a list of those needs. The Niners sure did, and then they checked them off one at a time. Relentless. Systematic. Organized.

Here’s what Trent Baalke needed and here’s what he took.

He needed a defensive back to cover the slot. He needed one because the 49ers let aging, high-priced Carlos Rogers go — he’s with the Raiders. So, with their first pick, the Niners took safety Jimmie Ward.

Understand the significance of the selection. Some GMs hand you a lot of baloney about drafting the best athlete available. Baalke went for need. He identified a need. Fulfilled the need. Check that box — slot defender.

Baalke needed a wide receiver because, really, he has only two reliable wide receivers — Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. So, he traded with Buffalo for possession receiver Stevie Johnson. Check the wide-receiver box.

He needed a running back. Badly. Frank Gore looked old at the end of last season. Kendall Hunter was hurt a lot, and when he played, was no big deal. LaMichael James is a jumbo prawn. Marcus Lattimore is rehabilitating a career-threatening knee injury and no one is saying he’s actually ready to play.

Tremendous need at running back. With his second pick, Baalke took Carlos Hyde in the second round. Hyde is what football people call a “bruising runner.” Not finesse. Bruising. Good pick.

Baalke needed someone who could play center and guard because center Jonathan Goodwin is gone. So, you guessed it, Baalke took lineman Marcus Martin in the third round. Check the box.

Baalke needed an inside linebacker because NaVorro Bowman is recovering from a serious injury. In the third round, he took Chris Borland. Check the ILB box.

Baalke likes to load up on offensive linemen, so with a supplemental pick after the third round, he took offensive guard Brandon Thomas. Thomas is injured and will not play next season. Call him a redshirt. This pick demonstrates a Baalke tendency. Loves to redshirt players. Last season, he redshirted Lattimore and defensive tackle Tank Carradine.

OK, let’s stop after three rounds and the supplemental pick and the trade for Johnson. Round 4 and beyond are iffy, and I can make my case based on the first three rounds. And I swear I’m not being lazy. I hung in there at the Niners’ media trailer all day on Saturday.

Baalke drafted for need. But he interpreted need in a specific way. He wanted up-the-middle players. You could draw a line from running back through the line of scrimmage and switch over to defense and draw a similar line — inside linebacker, safety. You get the idea. All these guys — except the receiver Johnson — are up-the-middle players.

To understand the point, think in baseball terms. A baseball team needs to be strong up the middle — catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second baseman, center fielder.

Same goes for football. If your defense is “soft up the gut,” you don’t even have to worry about your perimeter defense. The opponent’s offense will focus on gouging you up the middle. And it will gouge. Remember this adage: The most direct way to the opponent’s goal line is between the tackles.

Baalke, an old-school football guy, a tough-guy football guy, believes in power up the middle. He has a right to believe in that. History supports his belief. And Baalke was true to his beliefs.

But was he correct when he adhered to those beliefs? This is where things get tricky. This is where we question core beliefs.

The one troubling thing about Baalke’s performance is this. He had an abundance of picks, 11 to start with. Some of them are destined for the early-September waiver wires. Why didn’t the Niners attempt to package some of those picks to elevate to a higher position and grab a blue-chip player in the first round?

Why didn’t the Niners take a cornerback, a position of exceptional need? Darqueze Dennard went to Cincinnati at No. 24 in the first round. Baalke should have moved heaven and earth — or several picks — to get him. Or Baalke could have fought for cornerback Kyle Fuller, who went in the first round at No. 14 to the Bears. The Niners chose cornerbacks in later rounds, but it’s not clear those picks matter.

I’m saying an elite corner would have been better than Jimmie Ward, a safety, even though Ward is a good player. Jim Harbaugh said Ward will “compete” to be the nickel back and will be an “understudy” at safety. That’s a lot of hedging about his No. 1 pick. There is a reason other players were selected before Ward and he sat there at No. 30.

The Niners are not in need of numerous players to rebuild and restock like the Raiders. They must acquire and develop a couple of difference-makers. When you have been deep into the playoffs three consecutive years but are yet to win a Super Bowl, the issue is not how many players you can accumulate. The issue is the extreme, unique qualities of a player or two available in early rounds, a guy or guys who can get you the Lombardi Trophy. What good are 11 selections when several of them won’t make the team?

For Patrick Willis, Gore, Justin Smith, Boldin, Crabtree, Vernon Davis, etc., it is not a matter of how much more they can do to win a Super Bowl.

It’s a matter of who else the Niners can add right now to give the veterans maybe their last chance to win it all.

The Niners needed immediate difference-makers early in the draft to complement some of their aging players. Maybe the running back Hyde is a difference-maker. Maybe not.

The Niners sure needed an early-round cornerback to better defend against the pass and help the defense go three and out.

And although the trade for Johnson was creative and interesting, Johnson is not the speed receiver the 49ers need, not a run-past-the-defense wideout. He is a duplication of Boldin and Crabtree. More of the same. Odell Beckham went to the Giants No. 12 in the first round. You wonder if Baalke offered New York a package for him.

But, as I say, the 49ers had a philosophy, a reasonable philosophy, and they stuck to it. If they can make it work, more power to them. It’s just that Harbaugh has reached a critical point in his 49ers career. Anything less than a Super Bowl appearance is not good enough.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

 

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20 Comments

  1. NinerMadman

    Of course Baalke explored the option of moving up. If you actually read the work of your counterparts, you would know Matt Maiocco wrote an article about just that topic. If Buffalo had to give up 2 1st round picks and a 4th to move up 5 spots, how much would the Niners have to give up to move up 20 spots to get Beckham? If Baalke did make that move, you would probably complain that he gave up too much.

    May 10th, 2014 10:31 pm

  2. parnell

    The 49ers drafted not just for general need but for specific positional needs. Jimmie Ward was clearly drafted to compete for the job of covering the slot receiver – think Percy Harvin – and that’s apparently what he’s best at doing. Who knows? Dennard is hardly a lock to be a starting, elite cornerback according to various draft analysts. If Dennard was a certain starter why would the Bengals want to trade him? He’s going to compete for a job with them just as Ward will compete with the 49ers.

    Baalke and Harbaugh believe in a power running game and that’s the type of offensive player they draft. They’re one of the few teams in passing-oriented league that still believe in the running game but they also want their running back to be able to pick up blitzing linebackers and that’s what they think Carlos Hyde can do. It’s not the type of offense a lot of 49er fans want but it’s the offensive scheme that has brought the team to three consecutive championship games and no other team can make that claim no matter how esthetically pleasing their offenses may be.

    None of the wide receivers drafted after Sammy Watkins are unanimously regarded as can’t miss prospects. Last year’s number eight pick was Tavon Austin to the Rams. He barely showed up until late in the season and was hardly a game-breaker. The best receiver from the 2013 draft was Keenan Allen (taken in the third round). Is Odell Beckham guaranteed to be better than Quinton Patton (drafted by the 49ers in last year’s fourth round)? Is there a guarantee that Beckham won’t break his foot like Patton did and miss half the season?

    Baalke and Harbaugh have had mixed results with the draft – one year of near zero success – one year with several great picks. Some drafts like 2012 can be judged right away – disaster – while others can’t be judged until several years have elapsed It’s not necessarily true that late round picks have little chance to make the team – Bruce Miller, drafted in the seventh round as a defensive lineman became their starting fullback. Daniel Kilgore, drafted in the fifth round is projected to be their starting center. Dashon Goldson was drafted in the fourth round and has had a better career than many safeties drafted ahead of him.

    The 49ers plan to play football in 2015 and beyond and part of their plan is to have players who can contribute to winning seasons in their draft year and beyond.

    May 10th, 2014 11:46 pm

  3. dharte

    The problem for the 49ers is speed: Seattle simply plays faster than they do. And this draft won’t change that fact.

    A safety who runs 4.5 is not the answer for Percy Harvin, but then neither are Culliver and Brock.

    May 11th, 2014 12:24 am

  4. PhD

    I like the Johnson trade and Hyde, the RB pick. Otherwise, I personally would have traded up for higher rated CB help.

    May 11th, 2014 1:07 am

  5. Hoosgow

    I also think the Niners would have been better off trading their whole draft for one impact player. Maybe Baalke’s philosophy works, but most likely not. I guess if you take 3 6th-round CBs hoping one of them will rise to the occasion – who knows? There is a lot of assessment involved. Maybe there was no one Baalke was willing to bet the farm on. How many draftees will fit on the roster?

    May 11th, 2014 1:51 am

  6. Tommy CostaRica

    Is Ward better than Roby who was picked right after Ward by the Broncos?

    May 11th, 2014 4:53 am

  7. Rob

    The 49ers are a West Coast organization with Midwestern management and mindset throughout. Just too conservative in their overall thinking and approach. I just don’t see it breaking through, especially competing in the NFC West. Oh for the draft days of John McVay and Bill Walsh.

    May 11th, 2014 8:03 am

  8. Dennis

    I think there is more downside to number 1 picks than upside. How many number 1 picks are in Seattle’s backfield? Seattle has a real good backfield, arguably the best. I think quantity gives you more of a chance of hitting a good one than moving up and taking someone who might be slightly better at this point in their career.

    I like what the 49ers did.

    May 11th, 2014 8:52 am

  9. Andrew Hutchinson

    A very strange article. You spend the first half of the document explaining that the 49ers, or any Football team really, needs strength up the middle and that this is the way that the 49ers drafted. Then you spend the second half of the article decrying the fact that the 49ers didn’t trade up to srengthen their perimiter players, cornerback and wide receiver. Some people are just tough to make happy.

    May 11th, 2014 9:40 am

  10. Streetglide

    Here’s the 2014 NFC West results: Rams, 13-3, Cardinals 11-5, Hawks 9-7 and the Niners 9-7. It is a natural progression. You cannot keep getting to the top and then losing, it’s more wearying than being a mid-pack team year in and year out.

    I also think that the Niners are a high-mileage team both physically and mentally. Did you see Harbaugh interviewed on the NFL Network yesterday? Disengaged, paranoid, unpleasant, creepy. You cannot live with a guy like that year in and year out without the wheels coming off. This is his last year with the Niners. You can bank on it…

    May 11th, 2014 9:42 am

  11. Jamie

    None of the CBs were a consensus top guy. Just about every draft “expert” rated a different guy as their number one. Baalke hinted early on that he was unimpressed with the top rated guys and his not picking them clearly showed that was true. Verrett would have been the only guy that really would have fit what we were looking for as far as the ability to handle the slot guys and clearly his size was just too much of an issue. Ward is going to do a great job for us. He is fast, physical, hard-hitting, wraps up his tackles and has natural instincts for the ball. Those writing him off as a “4.5 guy” have only looked at one blurb and haven’t really looked at him. He ran the 4.48 time at the combine on a fractured foot. He has been clocked at much better times. Go out there and watch the game tape of him covering Dri Archer, the fastest guy at the combine (and fastest since Chris Johnson) with his 4.26 time. Ward stays with him step for step repeatedly and shut him down continually. We have at least 5 games this year against productive, dangerous slot guys (Harvin x2, Austin x2 and Welker). Ward has great potential in the slot and can also come up to do a solid job on the run game. AS for team speed, Lowell seem sot have forgotten about one pick: Bruce Ellington, many “experts” have said we got a steal in getting when we did.

    May 11th, 2014 10:53 am

  12. Mighty joe

    Do a little research Lowell. Read “How to value draft picks” from Harvard sports analytics and “How NFL teams ignore basic economics…” From vox. The 3 healthy dbs we took in the draft are more likely to net one impact player than the 9th pick in the draft, Gilbert.

    Trading up is a losing strategy, Lowell. It’s dumb. Smart general managers know this.

    May 11th, 2014 12:02 pm

  13. dharte

    @ Mighty Joe

    Does the name Rice ring a bell?

    When you see a great player, you try to get him. Walsh often went back in the draft to acquire more picks, but when he went up for someone , greatness was always the point.

    The 49ers need a shut-down corner to counter Percy Harvin. They just don’t have that player. And if Aldon Smith is suspended for any length of time, the pass rush won’t be there to hurry Russell Wilson…a bad combination all around.

    May 11th, 2014 12:34 pm

  14. Mighty joe

    @dharte

    Rice is an exceptional case. The most exceptional football player ever by most measures. Most drafts don’t have a player even approaching his caliber and yet teams trade up every year as if they’re getting the next Jerry. This is a losing strategy. Even when the player ends up being a star, it’s often a losing strategy because of the depth you lose chasing a single great player.

    In an endeavor where there are no guarantees the smart move is playing the odds in your favor. That’s what Baalke has done this year, even as he gambled and won on Reid last year.

    May 11th, 2014 2:41 pm

  15. MJ

    These comments are so reminiscent of those made after the 49ers selected Aldon Smith. Who’s that? What a horrible pick? They should have drafted a QB. Blah blah blah.

    And stop saying that his “4.5″ speed, recorded in a straight line in shorts and a tighty tshirt is bad. Game speed vs track speed. The guy is physical which will help him with bump and run defense on a guy who might have a faster straight line speed. How do his hips work, what was his cone drill time, which is much more important than a straight line. Navaro Bowman had a 4.77 time in the 40…does the guy look like a 4.77 lb when he’s on the field? No, he looks like one of the fastest LBs side to side (joined by Willis) and if anyone saw his TD return vs the falcons last season, we all know he is a lot faster than that 4.77 would credit him for. 30lbs of pads makes a big difference.

    May 11th, 2014 6:44 pm

  16. kg

    @ Rob
    You nailed it…All you have to do is look at that state of the art stadium that the current ownership built to see that they have a “Midwestern Mindset.” ha!

    May 11th, 2014 8:56 pm

  17. Brett

    ” Think of it like Football”. Nice analogy Lowell….makes sence.

    May 12th, 2014 8:45 am

  18. Brett

    I agree with Dennis once again. College ball players are like a box of chocolates….you never know what you are gonna’ get.

    May 12th, 2014 8:49 am

  19. dharte

    @ MJ

    Actually, Baalke blew the Aldon Smith pick. The choice was JJ Watt–then, & certainly now.

    May 13th, 2014 12:00 am

  20. Steve McKerracher

    I completely disagree. Draft is about one thing primarily, and that’s value.
    The math shows trading up is nearly always not worthwhile. It isn’t worth trading multiple really good players, for ONE that might be 1% better.

    That is true, and always has been. You are advocating we take the draft strategy of the shitty teams who trade all their picks for top ten picks… and then lack any depth at all.

    We have depth everywhere (but QB), injuries won’t phase us. Football is a team sport, one or two stars who have no decent competition to train against outside of actual games won’t win as many games as a deep 90 man competition where every single person has to fight for position.

    Just look at the two best teams last year. Seahawks and Niners. Both very deep teams who don’t trade up much. Look at Tom Brady and Richard Sherman and the many other stars that came late in the draft. The more of those late drafts you get, and the more competition they have in training, the more of them may evolve into stars on the cheap.

    Criticizing a winning strategy that has got us into the top four teams in football 3 times, and advocating Jaguar type draft strategy is insane to me.

    And the Stevie Johnson trade was pure genius. We got it for a 7th round pick (after the trade back and then forward was finished, we got a 4th round pick for free… and got the player we wanted anyway. Pure Genius), and we don’t even take the full cap hit.

    May 17th, 2014 10:30 am

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