Is Trent Baalke a good GM?
It’s become fashionable on Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere to crap on 49ers GM Trent Baalke, and certainly there are plenty of examples to back up the claim that he hasn’t done a great job of late. (And they’re not all named A.J. Jenkins.) The 49ers roster is easily one of the worst in the league, suddenly, after being considered one of the deepest just a few short years ago.
The reason for that shift, of course, is not only did a bunch of high profile free agents leave for much higher salaries than the 49ers wanted to pay –Mike Iupati, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Alex Boone, but that was coupled with some key players retiring (some predictably, others not) like Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis. Aldon Smith screwed up one too many times, and suddenly he was gone, too.
Look at those names for a second and realize that in two years, the team lost nine starters there (Borland being the possible exception there) and many of them have been or still were Pro Bowl level players. Regardless, losing eight or nine starters is a preposterous amount of turnover, and it’s a tall order to be able to handle that gracefully.
Still, a good GM prepares for this through draft and development – but here’s where Baalke got caught a bit with his pants down. In a true Catch-22, Baalke had built (and inherited) a team to mostly compete now – adding depth was smart but it wasn’t always with young players. The team was so strong in most places that he had to get creative in the draft in order to try and get new young prospects.
This was done in several cases by drafting guys to stash on the Injured Reserve list, essentially an extra roster spot with a player who was unlikely to play in that season anyways. Marcus Lattimore famously never played a down (but in my mind was still completely worth the late 4th round pick used on him). These gambles have thus far not really yielded anything of note on the field.
But that could change this season.
Tank Carradine played as a 4-3 Defensive End in college, but the team asked him to bulk up to play a DE in the 3-4 base defense the 49ers use. Even knowing he was out with an ACL, the team used their late 2nd round pick on him, making him by far the priciest “injury” player Baalke has drafted. He sat out his first year, while bulking up to a weight his frame isn’t built for, to play a position that in our scheme minimizes his biggest collegiate skill – rushing the passer. This was stated at the time as a way to prepare for Justin Smith retiring.
Unfortunately, the position switch didn’t work – perhaps that’s because Carradine just isn’t going to pan out. But this season, they’re trying him out where he has always made more sense, as a OLB in the 3-4 defense. With Aaron Lynch on the other side, an additional pass rushing threat fills a major deficit on the team. Carradine has shown flashes of his talent, and it seems the team is finally trying to put him in a position to succeed.
Brandon Thomas was drafted at the end of the 3rd round and put on IR – before his injury (which happened in a pre-draft workout for the Saints), he was projected as late 1st or early 2nd round pick. Grabbing him where we did was on Draft Day considered pure larceny.
Brandon Thomas has yet to play a down in the NFL.
(This picture is from a pre-season game.) Why is a complete mystery to me – his first year he was injured, but despite not being on the injury list he simply never played. Not a single beat writer ever mentions why, and it’s either that he just isn’t the same player anymore or he was in the doghouse with the coaching staff (since changed)…or something.
A change of coaching is not a bad thing for a player like this, and interestingly – though clearly because 2nd round pick Joshua Garnett was still back at Stanford – Thomas started with the 1st team in OTAs. Now, offensive line rotations in OTA’s doesn’t mean much – but he did so alongside Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore and Erik Pears. The first three guys on that list are definitely projected starters, and Pears was last year (though hopefully not in 2016). If Thomas can get good snaps as a swing guard – or even just at one side if needs be – and start to show why he was such a high prospect, that would be HUGE for the line.
One of the flat out worst positions on the team is at wide receiver. Aside from Torrey Smith (who candidly is nobody’s idea of a #1 receiver), it’s a total toss up. And that’s where someone like DeAndre Smelter could take advantage. He projects as a potential Anquan Boldin replacement, and his size and relative speed have got to be tempting to Chip Kelly. Before his ACL injury, he was projected as a 2nd, maybe 3rd round draft pick – Baalke got him late in the 4th round instead. Smelter has a real shot to get a decent amount of snaps this year, and as a 6’3” receiver with gigantic hands, he can be that red zone target we’ve really lacked. Smelter highpointing some quick passes in the red zone? I’m in.
These are the real injury gambles still on the team and really all of them have a chance to show their stuff this season. What if, say, Tank Carradine shows up as a great situational pass rusher – and Smelter a reliable, physical receiver with tons of potential? Suddenly, Baalke is looking a lot better…right?
At this juncture, it’s not just about drafting but player development. For a lot of these guys in their 2nd or 3rd year, they’ve had new coaches every year as a 49er. Good players show up, but hopefully this is now a situation where they can really contribute.
The reality is that the team is unlikely to be very good this year, but we can surprise and more importantly, develop the young talent we do have so we can maximize next years offseason and target our other areas of need.
Here’s a quick, off-the-cuff thought on who could be the starters next season:
QB – Colin Kaepernick
RB – Carlos Hyde
WR – Torrey Smith
WR – Quinton Patton
WR – DeAndre Smelter
TE – Vance McDonald
LT – Joe Staley
LG – Zane Beadles
C – Daniel Kilgore
RG – Joshua Garnett
RT – Trent Brown
LDE – Arik Armstead
NT – Ian Williams / Glenn Dorsey
RDE – DeForest Buckner
LOLB – Aaron Lynch
ILB – Navorro Bowman
ILB – Gerald Hodges/Jaquiski Tartt
ROLB – Tank Carradine / Eli Harold
CB – Tramaine Brock
CB – Jimmie Ward
FS – Eric Reid
SS – Antoine Bethea
I mean, maybe to other people that looks horrendous … but it doesn’t look that bad to me, to be honest. A couple of these positions – DL , S and CB, specifically – the team has some good young backups/rotations as well. (That actually also includes OL, where the team drafted liberally.)
With a good plan and coaching, this could be a very positive year for the team. It could also be another train wreck, because Lord knows the franchise is good at that, of late. And Jed York will almost certainly do something to make things worse. But, I think there’s something here … and it should be fun to watch.