They solved both immediate and future team needs, while simultaneously extracting maximum value with each selection.
This perfectly executed, multifaceted strategy yielded the 49ers a draft-day haul of considerable proportions.
To that end, general manager Trent Baalke executed five separate trades on Friday. Each move fostered ample flexibility and enabled him to acquire four high-value prospects in Rounds 2 and 3.
Predraft Trade for WR Stevie Johnson
Less than four hours before the start of the second round, Baalke landed wide receiver Stevie Johnson in a trade with the Buffalo Bills.
San Francisco merely parted with a conditional fourth-round pick in 2015 for the accomplished veteran pass-catcher, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Johnson compiled three straight 1,000-yard seasons before posting a sub-par campaign last year. The 6’2’’, 210-pounder still managed a second-leading 597 yards and a team-high three touchdowns for a Bills squad that was a total mess at the quarterback position.
His addition solidified the 49ers depth chart at wideout. With Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton and Brandon Lloyd already on board, Baalke did not have to select a receiver on Day 2.
Sure, Johnson primarily operates out of the slot, a place where Boldin excels. He logged 71.3 percent of his total snaps from that position in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
He also tied for the second-worst drop percentage out of 43 receivers graded last season by PFF. That surely presents a legitimate concern.
But remember—the likes of first-year quarterback EJ Manuel and undrafted rookies Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis were the ones “throwing” him the ball. Plus, Baalke addressed the former issue during a Friday press conference.
“He’s lined up in the slot quite a bit [throughout] his career, but he’s also lined up outside and performed at a high level,” said Baalke via Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group (courtesy of Mercurynews.com).
Again, trading for Johnson afforded Baalke the maneuverability to target a host of other positions. Even though a playmaking but project-type receiver like the 6’4’’ Martavis Bryant remained an option, it in no way qualified as a draft-day imperative.
So, how did Baalke capitalize off that freedom?
Trade No. 2: Move Back, Reclaim
Baalke’s next move served as the catalyst behind every one of San Francisco’s acquisitions on Day 2.
As outlined by the venerable Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 49ers first traded back from No. 56 to No. 63. They received the Denver Broncos’ fifth-round selection (No. 171) and their fourth-round pick in 2015.
They therefore reclaimed their fourth-rounder that Baalke originally sent to Buffalo for Johnson.
But most importantly, the 49ers netted the requisite trade capital for a much more significant pickup.
Trade No. 3: Move Up, Retool
This is where Baalke scoffed at the innumerable mock drafts that purported to know exactly how, why and whom he would take.
Instead of grabbing a receiver—which Denver did with Cody Latimer at No. 56—the 49ers traded up with the Miami Dolphins for their No. 57 pick.
In exchange for the previously acquired Nos. 63 and 171 selections, they tabbed Carlos Hyde, running back out of Ohio State.
This was an unexpected but phenomenal move.
Despite taking Marcus Lattimore in Round 4 last year, in addition to incumbents Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, Hyde is as good, or better, than all four.
The bruising 5’11’’, 230-pounder was the consensus top back in this year’s draft. ESPN Insider (subscription required) awarded him above-average or elite grades in nearly every position-specific trait, calling him “the closest thing to a complete back in this class.”
Baalke noted Hyde’s fit in the 49ers' power-run schemes, not to mention his vision, footwork, low-running style and capabilities as a pass-blocker, according to Inman. He also deemed him the “best player available.”
Hyde can split carries with Gore this year and serve as a pass-catching weapon for Colin Kaepernick. He can do the same with Lattimore in 2015 when the contract of the franchise’s all-time leading rusher expires.
Hunter will become a free agent after this season, and James will function solely as a return man if he somehow avoids being traded.
To recap, Baalke landed the draft’s premier running back—the 33rd-best prospect per ESPN Insider—with the No. 57 pick at the bottom of the second round. He secured the successful future of the team’s second-most important position without mortgaging its future draft selections.
What could he possibly do next?
Trade No. 4: Move Back, Replenish
Baalke elevated the 49ers’ best positional strength into perhaps the NFL’s unmatched overall unit.
But despite moving back, he still managed to acquire Marcus Martin—the top-rated center in this 2014 class and the 37th-ranked prospect—with the 70th overall pick.
ESPN Insider details that Martin “has great size and [a] strong inline power base to get movement,” which make him “an ideal fit for the 49ers’ rushing attack.” He will also mesh well within the culture of this team as a high-intangible, “high-character individual.”
The 6’3’’, 320-pound lineman from USC also offers tremendous versatility.
He could push Daniel Kilgore for the starting job at center this season. In addition to backing up any interior position, he could also “step in for Mike Iupati at left guard should Iupati depart via free agency in March,” according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Either way, he joins an offensive line that already boasts Pro Bowlers Iupati and left tackle Joe Staley, mauling right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis, who is a top-23 pass-blocker, according to PFF.
Providing reinforcements and killing multiple gridiron birds with one high-rated stone, Baalke was sure at his best with this latest maneuver.
Original Picks: ILB Chris Borland, OL Brandon Thomas
Baalke fortified the short-term status of one position with a currently healthy player, while later insuring the long-term standing of another unit with an asset who’s presently injured.
Do you follow?
The 49ers' astute general manager once again eliminated team deficiencies with high-value prospects.
He selected Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Borland with San Francisco’s original No. 77 selection. He also took Clemson offensive lineman Brandon Thomas with its compensatory pick in the third round (No. 100).
What Borland lacks in physical measurables, he makes up for in production, intelligence, recognition and pure heart for the gridiron game. He totaled 358 tackles, 38.5 for loss and 11 sacks over his last three collegiate seasons. The former Badger earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors for his stellar efforts in 2013.
Lofty comparison or not, Borland is simply a solid all-around player at the linebacker position. The 5’11’’, 248-pounder will suit up next to Patrick Willis and adequately fulfill all necessary duties until NaVorro Bowman returns midseason.
He will also provide tremendous contributions on special teams with positional mates Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody.
But don’t take our word for it. Said Baalke: “How can you not love him as a football player? He’s not tall enough, not fast enough, his arms are too short. We just love his makeup. He has everything you’re looking for from a DNA standpoint.”
So Baalke employed his patented zero-risk, all-reward drafting of a red-shirt-type player at the end of the third round.
He will not expect anything of Thomas for the next two years and will afford him all the time necessary to make a full recovery. He will put the former Clemson standout in a position where he can only help San Francisco down the line.
If Thomas does indeed return to form, the folks at ESPN Insider believe “he will bring great value here with the power, length and versatility to interchange between tackle and guard.” More so, he will fit in “well with the physical style of the 49ers' offensive line.”
From Hyde to Martin to Borland to Thomas, Baalke hit the “big four” of need, value and present and future depth through the first three rounds.
And for Rounds 4 though 7, he has at his disposal seven picks dedicated to ensuring the championship sustainability of a franchise that seeks its sixth Lombardi Trophy (he acquired an additional fourth- and sixth-rounder from the Cleveland Browns for the No 94 pick).
Niners fans may gripe over Baalke not taking a wide receiver up to this point.
But with so many selections and so many still left on the board, the Red and Gold faithful need not worry—their commander and chief has this one in the bag.
All player statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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