Trent Baalke took over as the GM of the 49ers one month prior to the 2010 draft. He got the lion’s share of the credit for overseeing a class that included Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, and NaVarro Bowman. He followed that up with an arguably better group in 2011 that featured Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, Daniel Kilgore and Bruce Miller. Jim Harbaugh joined that season and started a streak of three straight NFC Championship appearances utilizing the talent that Baalke and his predecessor, Scot McCloughan, stockpiled prior to his arrival. It looked like a perfect football marriage of coaching and scouting, but there were signs as early as 2012 that this relationship would not last.
The empty draft
Fresh off a frustrating NFC Championship loss to the Giants after two fumbled punts, the 49ers set out to add weapons to their offense that already boasted the best offensive line in football. Their first round choice was WR A.J. Jenkins. He would exit the team via trade a year later without ever having caught a football in a 49er uniform. The second-round pick for San Francisco was RB LaMichael James. His primary value to the team was as a kick returner. James was granted his release two years after he was drafted without scoring a touchdown.
Things did not get much better from there. Baalke and the 49ers have only one player left on their roster from that 2012 draft, backup guard and third-string center Joe Looney. Compare that to a Seahawks 2012 draft class that included: Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, Robert Turbin, Jeremy Lane and J.R. Sweezy. They also added Jermaine Kearse and DeShawn Shead that year as undrafted free agents that have spent significant time on the roster.
The Seahawks lost their first three games against the Harbaugh/Baalke 49ers before beating them 42-13 in their final 2012 matchup. They have now won three of the last four games, including a victory in the NFC Championship last year to go to the Super Bowl. As that 2012 class of the Seahawks grew up that year, and the 49ers class fizzled, the tides turned for both franchises.
Working at cross-purposes
Few franchises can survive a completely empty draft class like the one the 49ers had that year. Baalke followed that with another poor draft that, so far, has only produced one starter in S Eric Reid. Curiously, he spent multiple picks on players known to need as much as a full year to recover from injuries.
Tank Carradine was taken in the second round and Marcus Lattimore was taken in the fourth. Lattimore retired this year after he was unable to recover from the knee injury he suffered in college. Carradine has not been able to break into the rotation despite a series of injuries and suspensions along the defensive front. Quinton Dial was taken in the fifth round and had to start the year on injured reserve due to a toe injury suffered in college. Most coaches are not excited about spending draft choices on players who will be unavailable to help the team for at least a year. It was as if Baalke was intentionally deferring talent and making things harder on Harbaugh.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh and his defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, were often unwilling to put young players on the field. This is the power a coach can yield to impact the general manager. It is hard for a GM to look like a successful talent evaluator if the players they draft never get on the field.
San Francisco drafted six All-Pro players between 2007 and 2011. They have drafted none since. They drafted five starters in the 2011 draft, and have drafted just three since. And that total of three starters includes LB Chris Borland who is only playing due to injuries at the position.
The Seahawks have drafted nine starters since 2012, while the 49ers have drafted just three
By comparison, the Seahawks have drafted nine starters in the 2012-2014 drafts. That includes at least two in each draft class. While Seattle has had weaker draft classes in 2013 and 2014 than they did in 2010-2012, none of them have been empty like the 49ers suffered. The 2013 class was looking very weak, but the recent play of Tharold Simon, Jordan Hill, Luke Willson, and Christine Michael has brightened the outlook.
This most recent 49er draft has some promising talent that includes slot corner Jimmie Ward, RB Carlos Hyde, Borland, CB Dontae Johnson and DE Aaron Lynch. Their development will likely come too late to save Harbaugh’s job in San Francisco.
All signs point to Baalke staying while Harbaugh is shown the door after this season. The logic of that decision is hard to fathom. It was Baalke who was responsible for that empty draft and the subpar one that followed. Only time will tell if it was coaching or scouting that led to the rise of San Francisco, but there is little doubt that poor personnel decisions led to the fall.