Are Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers Changing the NFL Landscape?
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Grounded on fundamentals, grit, bravado and a winning attitude, this is the archetypal Sandlot team in pro sports.
Despite their wild, nothing-to-lose style of play, the 49ers easily flaunt, pound-for-pound, one of the best rosters in the league. They are also just as exemplary, if not better on the sidelines, boasting an incomparable coaching staff and personnel department.
At the end of the day, it is all led by Jim Harbaugh—otherwise known as the spark that ignited the fire.
A bit of an eccentric with a flair for the theatrics, Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated describes Harbaugh as “half coach and half mascot” in this profile bit for SI.com. His gung-ho, team-first mentality was refreshing for a squad that was told to win but never taught how.
He instilled an unrelenting, diehard identity in this team that was reflective of his own character.
Before he arrived from Stanford, the 49ers were a team of despair, rotting away in the underbelly of the NFL ranks. They were a frequent punch line in the league, ostracized for their repeated shortcomings.
Hopelessly drawn to the challenge like a moth to a flame, Harbaugh would mosey into a situation where there was already a lot of talent, but a considerable restoration project nevertheless.
As an outcome of a decade of losing, the 49ers continued to stockpile high first-round picks on their roster. Though, until Harbaugh claimed an office at 4949 Centennial Boulevard in Santa Clara, it was nothing more than unrealized potential.
According to the Pro Football Focus Top-101 series from Khaled Elsayed, the 49ers tout 13 elite-level starters as of 2012. This was a league-high, with the Broncos and Seahawks finishing at Nos. 2 and 3 with six players apiece.
Harbaugh inherited 11 of those players, contributing only LB Aldon Smith and QB Colin Kaepernick to group via the 2011 NFL draft.
However, this fact should not dissuade one from trusting that what Harbaugh has done was anything short of remarkable. He not only thrived, but exceeded expectations where a horde of accomplished coaches preceding him failed.
On the field, in the front office and in life, Harbaugh preached values and taught these men how to finish what they started. In the following slides, we’ll discuss how a man changed the culture in one of the most storied franchises in sports history and the ripple effect it has had throughout the league.
Part I: Methodology on the Field
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
It is one thing to change the particulars of offensive and defensive philosophies—it is quite another to present a team with an identity on the field. In an instant, Harbaugh influenced the X's and O's, as well as the psychological approach to the sport.
It would be shortsighted to say Harbaugh snapped his fingers—because a lot of work went into this rebirth—but to the outside world, that’s what it looked like. In shortened league year, the new head coach and his staff rejuvenated a once-historic franchise that had been lying dormant.
He inherited a defense that was strong at its core, but put the finishing touches on it and made it better. Though, most notably, Harbaugh revived a bottom-dwelling offense that appeared unsalvageable.
From 2004-2010, the 49ers had seven-straight seasons with a negative point differential, never breaking .500 (via Pro Football Reference). Prior to the fact, San Francisco secured a postseason slot 18 times from 1981-2002.
NFL followers witnessed what was one of the sharpest declines in sports history, as one of the all-time great offenses plummeted, consistently ranking in the bottom of the league in total yards and points scored.
After losing several iconic franchise players, the nosedive was only fueled by a string of defensive-minded coaches from 2005-2010.
In Harbaugh’s debut, the team managed a plus-151 point differential, which happened to be a franchise-best since 1998. That year happened to be Steve Young’s last full season in scarlet and gold, resulting in a 12-4 record.
The 49ers were starting to see jubilant results once again.
After enduring failing seasons with militant coaches, one after another, San Francisco finally rewarded with their new direction.
In contrast to their past endeavors, Harbaugh yanked the 49ers out of the surmounting quicksand with an offensive prowess, reinstating the value in scheme versatility, power rushing and dual-threat QBs in the process.
As a rookie, Colin Kaepernick fulfilled an understudy role on the bench, while the staff gradually introduced complex yet innovative plays to the offense—a number of which utilized the mobility of the quarterback.
This new wrinkle was progressively revealed throughout the 2011 season, but certainly the most notable was instance was then-quarterback Alex Smith’s thrilling 28-yard touchdown run in the NFC divisional playoffs.
In hindsight, Kaepernick’s all-encompassing skill set and the new direction of San Francisco’s offense are indicative that the 49ers always had a plan for the superstar quarterback from Nevada-Reno.
By the middle of 2012, this innovative approach evolved into the zone read, which Washington and Seattle also deploy. At the pro level, coaches are now finding that it is a brand new way to attack opposing defenses.
It turns the tables on defensive coordinators, using their over-aggressive style against them while challenging their players fundamentally. The foundation of this new fold is to test and expose gap integrity.
#Filmstudy Niners: Most pistol zone read plays by Niners have defenders spinning like tops or unsure where the ball is going.— Trent Dilfer (@TDESPN) January 18, 2013
#Filmstudy Niners: Lots of diversity from Pistol as well. Zone read only part of advantage of pistol O. PA is good & many other solid runs— Trent Dilfer (@TDESPN) January 18, 2013
Harbaugh’s vision essentially shattered the mold, demonstrating a successful merge of the college and pro games. The creativity pre- and post-snap—from untraditional packages to unique route combinations and pulls—has been groundbreaking.
The pistol package, which is a modified shotgun package, was derived from Nevada legend Chris Ault.
A Hall of Fame college coach now with Kansas City, Ault’s biggest claim to fame is that he is the founder of the pistol, which features the read-option. This up-tempo attack that relied on sleight of hand simply knifed defenses in the NCAA.
And it was spearheaded by none other than current 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.
After identifying, drafting and shaping his dream quarterback, Harbaugh built the ideal system around him and let him loose. This resulted in several regular- and postseason records, including most rushing yards in a single-game by a quarterback (181 vs. Green Bay).
As a rookie head coach, Harbaugh took a real risk by gambling on Kaepernick’s unconventional style but it has since paid immense dividends.
Bear in mind, there have been legendary coaches at the collegiate level that failed miserably once they arrived on the NFL stage. Whether it was Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Lou Holtz or Dennis Erickson, there have been instances that personified the NFL-NCAA mesh as oil and water.
NCAA coaches that tried to replicate their success at the next level by employing similar tactics were flushed out of the league in grand fashion. This shows that, as simple as Harbaugh made it look, the transition is not an easy one to make.
He went against the grain again by emphasizing the run game in a passing league.
#Filmstudy Niners: Studied A TON of run games & schemes the last 10 years, I have never seen anything like this. VERY diverse & creative— Trent Dilfer (@TDESPN) January 18, 2013
According to Jon Gruden, and many others, this is one of the highest-volume offenses in the NFL, featuring:
- Trap Plays
- Bizarre Toss Plays
- Zone Schemes
- Gap Schemes
- Vintage West Coast Runs
- Dummy Snap Count
- Multiple TE Sets
- And more…
San Francisco manipulates defenses by using these varying packages in juxtaposition, creating confusion and keeping the opposition off balance. In Week 1 of 2012 versus Green Bay, the 49ers used 10 different personnel groupings in the first 15 snaps, per Sports Illustrated.
The schematic ingenuity is most apparent in their ground attack.
And from a talent and depth perspective, this 49ers’ current running back corps similar to Auburn (2004), Arkansas (2007) or Miami (2001). Harbaugh felt bringing in a deep, well-balanced attack to the pro level would be advantageous.
And he was right: it keeps defenses honest, makes them defend the entire field and challenges them with diverse, fresh-legged runners.
This collegiate approach of attack-by-committee over a single bell-cow keeps defenses off-balance by throwing different styles at them. Having to adjust from power, to speed, to shiftiness—all the while trying to read complex looks—is mentally and physically grueling for opposing units.
49ers 2013 RB Depth Chart:
1. Frank Gore
Though, taking a gander at the dominant teams prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, it is clear to see they liked to air it out. The NFL has clearly gone the way of the passing attack and every other team desires what few have, namely an elite passing attack.
But this new-look Niners team has beaten those few, which subsequently set forth a new trend. In his first two seasons, the 49ers have taken on and thrashed high-octane offenses in New Orleans, Green Bay, New England and Atlanta.
As of the end of last season, Harbaugh’s 49ers have gone 6-0 against these teams, defeating Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers twice apiece. It should also be noted that the 49ers stole 80 percent of those wins on the road.
This has evidently encouraged Green Bay, Atlanta and New England into upgrading their ground attacks.
Perhaps they realized they didn’t frustrate the 49ers quite like the Seahawks and Ravens have; both of which flaunt premier rushing attacks with top-tier backs. It is apparent that teams that continue to pound the ball can defeat San Francisco.
On the contrary, if an opposing team allows the 49ers D to make them one-dimensional (i.e., throwing 50-plus times a game), that is when San Francisco really puts them in a stranglehold.
And by their offseason moves, it seems this is what Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy and Mike Smith would like to avoid:
|Player Name||Passing Attempts||QB Rating||Non-QB Runs||Result|
|Drew Brees (1)||63||93.5||13||L|
|Drew Brees (2)||41||86.1||19||L|
|Aaron Rodgers (1)||44||93.3||9||L|
|Aaron Rodgers (2)||39||91.5||13||L|
In each of San Francisco’s non-wins in 2012, their opponent was able to grind it out on the ground with 30-plus carries, more often than not: Vikings (34), Giants (34), Rams (36), Rams (24), Seahawks (30) and Ravens (34).
The value of a balanced offense is displayed here.
This offseason, the Packers made a splash, drafting running backs Eddie Lacy (Alabama) and Jonathan Franklin (UCLA)—the Nos. 1 and 2 rated tailbacks in 2013, per NFL Draft Scout.
This will add an entirely new dimension to an offense that Rodgers has single-handedly carried to elite standing. Green Bay will be much harder to defend in 2013 because even if they don’t run the ball, they now possess the threat of run.
According to Pro Football Talk, the Falcons also upgraded their running back situation, signing free agent RB Steven Jackson. The 29-year-old back will be entering 2013 maintaining a streak of eight-straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
With the weapons Atlanta already had in place, this makes them capable of virtually anything offensively.
On draft day, the Patriots traded RB Jeff Demps and a seventh-rounder (No. 229 overall) to Tampa Bay for LeGarrette Blount. The four-year pro was being phased out by Doug Martin, which opened a great opportunity for New England to swoop in.
While the Pats have Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen on the roster, Blount is capable of so much more. He is a big, physical every-down back that has a constantly growing chip on his shoulder. His exile from Tampa Bay probably did not sit right with him, either.
Again, these are all illustrations of how the 49ers are possibly impacting a given team’s approach on the field. The concrete proof is few and far between, but there are enough patterns wherein a curious enough individual could connect the dots.
Part II: Model for the Front Office and Sideline
Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports
Great move by Niners GM Trent Baalke (who's made many in last 2 years), signing LB NaVorro Bowman through 2018--when he'll still be just 30.
— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) November 27, 2012
The success of an organization is largely contingent on the relationship between the head coach and general manager. This is by no means a trend started by the 49ers; however, results from the pairing of Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke certainly echoed the fact.
These two march in lockstep, sharing and executing a vision of what this team will be now, and for the next 5-10 years.
What Harbaugh and Baalke have demonstrated appears to be the apex of the head coach/GM relationship in the NFL. Harbaugh functions as the X's and O's guy while Baalke carries the label of the architect.
After spending time with the New York Jets and Washington Redskins, Baalke joined the 49ers in 2005 as a regional scout. With his charisma and unmistakable knowledge, he climbed his way up the ranks, earning the title of Director of Player Personnel by 2008.
Between ’05 and ’08, Baalke partook in drafts that yielded Frank Gore (RB), Adam Snyder (OL), Vernon Davis (TE), Parys Haralson (LB), Delanie Walker (TE), Patrick Willis (LB), Joe Staley (OL), Ray McDonald (DL), Dashon Goldson (FS) and Tarell Brown (CB).
By 2010, he was VP of Player Personnel in San Francisco.
Considering the litany of variables and immeasurable factors all playing a part, one of the trickiest things to do in any sport is to project talent from one level to the next. However, in his three decades of football experience, Baalke has developed a criterion for the type of players he brings in.
Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and close friend of Baalke told Sports Illustrated:
He's a football man, through and through. He's coached it, he's scouted it, and he appreciates tough, hard-nosed players with a passion for the game. He's always stressed the importance of players who are going to play 60 minutes of football and grind until the end.
This has become the identity of the 49ers football team, which has, in turn, flourished through Harbaugh’s on-field methodology. There is a shared creed between the two, which has thrust this organization forward instead of hindering any impending progress.
Baalke, now the general manager of one of the most dominant teams in his respective sport, is a key cog in the front office, and a visionary, to boot. From 2005 until now, he has drafted several players that are better in the NFL than they were in college.
It is about seeing potential, nurturing that talent and finding a fit for it.
Trent Baalke, in my opinion, is the best GM in all of football. He's not just great on the personnel side; he's a great leader. It's just an unbelievable situation where you have the best in the NFL at every level in the organization. That translates to the players. You come out and now you have a state-of-the-art training facility and now everything makes sense. You're getting the most from players.
Despite not always having an adequate staff to lead his players, Baalke has maximized time and resources spent on free agency and the draft. However, as the past coaching carousel in San Francisco shows, all that talent is useless if you don’t have the football minds to put them in a position to succeed.
Now, like a shot of adrenaline, the league is feeling the rush for the dynamic head coach/general manager tandem—mainly operating with the understanding that organizational confluence is a vital key to success.
The ability for the pair to coexist and make impassive decisions in the best interest of the team is what drives the powerhouse franchises. It can even lead to an instant turnaround like the one San Francisco saw in 2011.
On the other end of the spectrum, a dysfunctional front office can tank an organization. When there are incongruities or unbalanced viewpoints behind closed doors, things like the Tim Tebow saga in New York happen.
At the conclusion of 2012, lot of teams—including the Jets—reached their breaking point, which propelled a fervent offseason for executives on the move.
When there were no more games to be played, a number of organizations got busy eyeing a new front office duo or a yin to their yang. There was an assertive push for fresh coaches and personnel gurus to revitalize teams that were in a constant state of flux.
This allowed all of these struggling teams to hit the reset button. The hope is that the collective efforts by the coach and GM will yield results, ultimately shifting their current course of direction.
For several teams, it was about adding a fresh perspective to an environment that had grown stale.
And as it turned out, offensive-minded coaches were now cornering the marketplace. Of the eight new head coaches, seven came from offensive backgrounds, which makes Gus Bradley (Jaguars) the lone wolf of the group.
In terms of league direction and what teams are now looking for, it was apparent that the tides were shifting.
This new trend even came at the expense of Lovie Smith not being hired, who was easily the most qualified candidate available. After being released from Chicago, the head coach was not even courted by needy NFL teams.
This is reflective of the emphasis on the offensive side of the ball.
Even college coaches earned more validation than proven defensive minds, which was not the case only a few years ago. Chip Kelly (Oregon), Doug Marrone (Syracuse) and Greg Schiano (Rutgers) have all been given opportunities deserving guys like Lovie Smith and Mike Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator, were not.
The writing is on the wall that the NFL is further evolving toward offense, welcoming innovation in the process.
In 2010, prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, the Bears, Ravens and Steelers were all top-ranked teams—each with a defensive unit that finished in the top five. In the following offseason, Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera and John Fox were a few of the big-name hires, each coming from defensive backgrounds.
Though, Harbaugh—the distinguished QB guru from Stanford—would emerge as the choice hire of the year. The scope has since shifted toward teams like New England, Green Bay, Atlanta and the innovation coming out of San Francisco.
The absence of Sean Payton in 2012 also demonstrated his immense value to the Saints organization, as the team fell from Super Bowl champion prestige to a below-.500 club in the NFC without him.
The thinking has changed in that sense that teams want to score points more than they want to stop the football. There is also the idea that the infusion of an offensive guru has potential for a higher return than bright defensive guy (See: Ryan, Rex).
The belief is that they are more likely to catch lightning in a bottle.
So after hiring Chris Ault, Andy Reid deployed Alex Smith in Pistol formation for some OTA snaps. Also play NFC East this year— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) May 20, 2013
Another trend the 49ers helped advance is that on top of bright offensive coaches, teams want to add more coaches and more consultants. The desire for experience, creativity and a winning pedigree takes precedence in San Francisco—and there is no need to limit the qualified minds on board the operation.
When Harbaugh walked in, he retained several coaches, but also added his own, having signed a number from the Pac-12.
Well after the foundation of the 49ers staff was rebuilt in 2011, the team sought out and hired Paul Wulff as their Senior Offensive Assistant, per Christian Gin of the Examiner. In 2012, Wulff came over as the former head coach of Washington State University (2008-11) where he implemented the spread offense.
Only a year later, San Francisco reportedly interviewed former head coach and current ESPN analyst Eric Mangini, per Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle. The former pupil of Bill Belichick supposedly spoke with the 49ers regarding an offensive consulting position.
Though the signing is yet to happen, it confirms the 49ers are legitimately interested in adding to their cabinet of personnel execs. These are all examples of San Francisco pushing the norm to put themselves in a more advantageous position.
Part III: On Draft Day
It's hard to overestimate the instant impact of the two-year Jim Harbaugh coaching era in San Francisco, but the reality is he has brought forth production from a cupboard that was pretty well-stocked when he got there. The 49ers have an embarrassment of riches in some ways -- there were 15 former first-round picks on the 2012 roster, with nine of those first-rounders being homegrown
Again, Jim Harbaugh inherited a very endowed 53-man roster in San Francisco, but the beautiful part was that the team drafted 60 percent of the relevant starters. And of those nine, all of them ranged in their mid-to-late 20s.
I often equate it to the “Suck for Luck” campaign, except, the 49ers sucked for Vernon Davis (No. 6 in 2006), Patrick Willis (No. 11 in 2007), Michael Crabtree (No. 10 in 2009), Anthony Davis (No. 11 in 2010), Aldon Smith (No. 7 in 2011) and so forth.
This anomaly spawned from years of losing resulted in San Francisco having a roster full of nesting talent and unrealized potential. Now two years removed from Harbaugh’s inaugural season, all of those players have evolved into premier players, not just for the 49ers, but league-wide.
The truth is, there was not much roster turnover before the organization began winning again. Undeterred by starting near the bottom, the 49ers have refrained from being major players in free agency since Harbaugh’s regime began.
In San Francisco’s eyes, it is going to win championships by developing drafted talent and molding it to fit the team’s style of play. And with that, winning becomes sustainable since the players are young, talented and homegrown.
For instance, two of the team’s big veteran pickups in the offseason include Anquan Boldin (32) and Nnamdi Asomugha (31). The hitch is that they have only been brought onboard for one year and together they are averaging $3.5 million, per Spotrac.
For the Niners, the free-agent period is purely supplemental. Heading into 2013, 18 of their projected 22 starters are in their 20s; with nine being in the 25-and-under club, via Vincent Frank of Bleacher Report.
A lot of teams devote attention to wining and dining high-priced free agents, whereas the 49ers keep their eye on the prize, which is the annual NFL draft. They are fully cognizant of the draft’s prestige, understanding that is how dynasties are built.
To put it simply, San Francisco is about drafting and extending deals.
While Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh have been exceptional in terms of personnel, they have a well-equipped staff in place. They’ve also nailed down an ironclad approach to their scouting process, seemingly honing in on the Southeast.
Their scouting department is first-rate, as a group of individuals that truly does their due diligence. Harbaugh has admitted, and their signings have confirmed, there is no player the 49ers will not look at, per 49ers.com.
To talk about our scouting department, to talk about our general manager Trent Baalke, there’s no amount of film that they won’t watch. They’re not scared to watch anybody’s film, whether it’s in the SEC or any other conference, for that matter.
One of the key cogs in said division is National Scout Matt Malaspina, who is in charge of crosschecking the top players in college football and also carries a specialty when it comes to prospects in the Southeast Region.
He is in his ninth year with the 49ers, during which time the organization has greatly profited from SEC guys and players in the southeastern part of the nation. Malaspina is another rising star in the NFL, having demonstrated a superb network and ability to evaluate.
After what looks to be another strong offseason by the 49ers, Malaspina was recently promoted to Director of College Scouting, per Matt Maiocco on Twitter.
Current Players Drafted by the 49ers from the Southeast Region (Since 2005):
Frank Gore (Miami)
Parys Haralson (Tennessee)
Patrick Willis (Ole Miss)
Ray McDonald (Florida)
Tarell Brown (Texas)
Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech)
Ricky Jean Francois (LSU)
Anthony Dixon (Mississippi State)
Aldon Smith (Missouri)
Chris Culliver (South Carolina)
Bruce Miller (Central Florida)
Demarcus Dobbs (Georgia) – UDFA
Tony Jerod-Eddie (Texas A&M) – UDFA
Eric Reid (LSU)
Tank Carradine (Florida State)
Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina)
Corey Lemonier (Auburn)
Quinton Patton (Louisiana Tech)
Quinton Dial (Alabama)
Nick Moody (Florida State)
B.J. Daniels (South Florida)
Justin Smith, Glenn Dorsey and Carlos Rogers are a few players the 49ers have also acquired in free agency that had big-time careers in the SEC.
After taking a step back and looking at the big picture, it sort of makes sense, too. The 49ers—with their toughness, prolific ground game and incredible athletic ability—closely resemble the model SEC team.
This is comparable to Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ proclaimed territory in the Northeast, targeting players from Rutgers. While zoning in on particular regions is not a new theory, San Francisco has shown what happens when it works.
Note Matt Malaspina on future GM lists. Very highly thought of in scouting community.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) May 1, 2013
In Harbaugh and Baalke’s first collaboration in 2011, the duo showed they understood the direction of the league and also that they knew what to look for. In their first draft, San Francisco spent their first two picks on a pass-rusher and a quarterback.
In Rounds 1 and 2, first two picks of the new regime were LB Aldon Smith at No. 7 overall and QB Colin Kaepernick at No. 36 overall. This landed them a long, lengthy attacking linebacker and a quarterback with playmaking skills.
As raw as both players were, neither of them started immediately—even despite the 6-10 record achieved the year before. This goes back to the 49ers developing their players, but I digress.
Looking at the NFL landscape, the quarterback/pass-rush specialist is a dynamic duo to have in the league:
- Von Miller and Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos)
- Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers)
- Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens)
- Jason Pierre-Paul and Eli Manning (New York Giants)
On both sides of the ball, these are competitors that organizations can build a team around. With their playmaking skill set, they always give their team a chance to win the series on the field, which is what it all comes down to.
Admittedly, there are few elite tandems on both sides of the ball, but several teams are now following in line, hoping to strike it rich.
Under new leadership in 2012, Joe Philbin made Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill the new quarterback of the Miami Dolphins. As they forged ahead under his slow-and-steady approach, the Dolphins went after a potential franchise player on the defensive side of the ball a year later.
In Round 1 of 2013, the Dolphins traded up to the No. 3 slot overall, selecting Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan.
In a vigorous crop of defensive talent, he was clearly this year’s leading pass-rush specialist. Through the draft process, analyst Mike Mayock of NFL Network repeatedly referred to Jordan as the “Aldon Smith prototype.”
With his presence, the Dolphins are hoping they have increased flexibility in what they can do defensively.
Moreover, this is high praise from Mayock to Smith, especially for a player that has only started one year in the league. It means he has made an impact in regards to what teams are looking for—affecting the thinking in front offices league-wide.
Seeing as how he piled up a franchise-record 19.5 sacks in his first year as a starter, it is no surprise that he is setting the standard already. Now an All-Pro, Smith turned a very good 49ers defense into an outstanding defense.
Watching Miami go quarterback and pass-rusher in back-to-back first rounds shows they are hoping for like results.
On April 25, the Buffalo Bills made Florida State’s E.J. Manuel the only quarterback selected in Round 1.
A lot of the questions against players like Manuel seemed to dissipate with a new breed of quarterback being reined in. Knocks like relying on mobility, being very raw, having an untrained throwing motion or lack of experience in pro-style offense mattered less.
These questions were swept under the rug in favor of upside, physical athleticism and adaptability. If they cannot find the rare elite arm talent, teams want to insert playmakers at the quarterback position.
Manuel can execute this evolving new-look offense in the NFL that utilizes the mobility of the quarterback and misdirection in the backfield. With his arm and legs, he can extend the play, push the ball downfield or take off running.
A bold draft move, the acquisition of E.J. Manuel comes one year after Mario Williams inked a lucrative six-year, $96 million contract, via Spotrac. He will be their dominant player on the defensive side, and pass-rush extraordinaire.
In consecutive offseasons, the Bills and Dolphins—both in rebuilding mode—spent significant draft and financial capital on the quarterback/pass-rush tandem. These are just two teams in transition that have done this.
Cleveland is yet another example, trying to help out Brandon Weeden by signing Paul Kruger and drafting Barkevious Mingo.
If San Francisco has reinstated value in another position, it’s the interior line, at guard in particular. This is pre-Harbaugh, considering Mike Iupati was taken in 2010 but it has become apparent nevertheless.
Now paired with Alex Boone, the 49ers have an offensive line with a defensive mentality. From the inside out, this unit bites back and it started with the tenacity that Iupati brought with him from Idaho. His insertion not only connected this line like a chain link, but it gave it an attitude.
The value of guards here is that they both protect the depth of the pocket and upgrade the run game. For this reason, there are a lot of reasons why a team would like to build an offensive line from the inside out.
In 2013, two offensive guards were drafted in the top 10: Jonathan Cooper (No. 7 to Arizona) and Chance Warmack (No. 10 to Tennessee). They were two of eight offensive linemen taken in the first 20 picks.
Before this past draft, a guard hadn’t been taken in the top 10 in 16 years, and the highest one taken prior was none other than Iupati at No. 17 overall (2010).
Of course, there are those like former Colts GM Bill Polian who does not understand why any team would take an interior lineman in the top 20. The argument is that they are not playmakers, but I’d attest that they are play enablers.
Amazing to think that in an era of instant impact the 49ers drafted a 1st round WR, went to the SB, and he caught 0 balls all year.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 5, 2013
After redshirting rookie first-round pick A.J. Jenkins and several others in 2012, the 49ers integrated yet another college concept to the pros. With the team standards and density of the playbook, there is a learning curve for incoming rookies.
By emphasizing a steady transition, Harbaugh has handled rookies the way NCAA coaches handle freshmen.
While not all teams are in a position to do so, San Francisco knowingly drafted into strengths with the intention of developing players for the long-term. It is essentially an in-house farm system that helps with the transition and optimizes player talent.
It is about finding value and adding the best possible football players, regardless of position. As Trent Baalke told Taylor Price of 49ers.com, this is not a “need-based” drafting team:
The more competition we can create, the better. I mentioned earlier today, we’re not opposed to drafting into strength. We’re not a need-based drafting team. We’re going to draft the best available player at the position, regardless of need. That doesn’t mean—and I've tried to explain this—we’re going to totally not acknowledge the fact that we have needs on our team. But drafting into strength is advantageous; there's reasons a team will do that.
Most notably, the 49ers illustrated this philosophical approach by continuing to take high-profile running backs in draft, even though Frank Gore is at the top of his game. However, the four-time Pro Bowler turned 30 years old this offseason.
Having added Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma St.), LaMichael James (Oregon) and Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina) from 2011-2013, the Niners are in exceptional position to endure Gore’s inevitable departure.
As a second-rounder, James redshirted for 12 regular games and did not step in until the team incurred injury. The same goes for the first-rounder, Jenkins, who missed 13 regular-season games. Now in 2013, Lattimore may miss the entirety of his rookie campaign.
And the 49ers did not stop there.
In an area of the 2013 draft that had a high concentration of talent, the 49ers spent picks 2-4 (Nos. 40, 55 and 88 overall) on players at positions with entrenched starters. They selected DE Tank Carradine, TE Vance McDonald and OLB Corey Lemonier.
On top of grooming players for the future, the 49ers added dimensions to positions of strength in the interim.
The 49ers take Marcus Lattimore, because of course they did. Jim Harbaugh/Baalke: trolling the NFL since 2011— Nick Kostos (@TheKostos) April 27, 2013
In that same draft, several other teams brought value to positions of strength. The Giants took QB Ryan Nassib, the Seahawks took RB Christine Michael with their first pick and the Chiefs took OT Eric Fisher with a franchise tackle already.
Moreover, NFL teams—especially ones with the division—are now willing to use every strategic advantage. This includes taking on defective players when the value at the point of acquisition outweighs the risk.
In a hurry to add able bodies to a talent-deprived roster, Seattle, St. Louis and Arizona each took on flagged prospects. In the past two drafts, Bruce Irvin, Janoris Jenkins and Tyrann Mathieu all endured scrutiny before landing in the NFC West.
Cortland Finnegan and Richard Sherman have also made their way to the division.
This tells us that:
- These teams cannot afford to pass on value with 49ers ascending the way they are
- These teams are coming from behind the 8-ball, are talent-needy and have to play catch up
- These teams have seen character defective players thrive in San Francisco (Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, Tarell Brown, Alex Boone, etc.)
Conclusion: Who's Got It Better Than Us?
Congratulations. You just trudged through quite a bit of information, so I’ll keep the conclusion brief.
It’s a copycat league and winning organizations are the logical trendsetters. After Jim Harbaugh turned a perennial loser into an NFC juggernaut, organizations league-wide saw the ripple effect one hiring could trigger.
Subsequently, it has teams keeping a close eye on the 49ers again.
In a multitude of ways, Harbaugh, along with Trent Baalke and the rest of the staff have not so much changed the landscape, but rather helped progress the evolution of the NFL. With their pioneering ways on and off the field, execs are starting to think outside the box again.
Moreover, there is the desire, and the belief, that instant success can be attained. In two seasons, the 49ers have achieved a 24-7-1 record under the new regime, which translates to them winning nearly 80 percent of their games.
The team also achieved two conference championship appearances in as many years, which includes one title. Though, beyond the win-loss column, the goal is to evoke a culture change by instilling a winning attitude.
Harbaugh did that in San Francisco, and it has organizations looking for the next impact player’s coach. For a team in search of inspiration, Jim Harbaugh was the catalyst that ignited the beginning of anew in a once celebrated franchise.
The future is limitless for this 49ers team.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.