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
- Don Banks of Sports Illustrated
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.
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.
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.
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.)