NFL Draft 2014: How San Francisco 49ers Redefined 'Best Player Available'
They turned an entertaining, but basic idea, into an actionable formula for sustaining championship-level success.
Or put more succinctly—the 49ers’ Super Bowl window is alive and well.
General manager Trent Baalke astutely devised and deftly executed a three-day plan on draft weekend. He satisfied positional needs, extracted maximum value and acquired the best available players—ones who will provide both present and future benefits.
He absolutely nailed the process at every point in the draft, and by comparison, reduced any NFL executive who didn’t to failures of no uncertain proportions.
Here’s a summary of how he did it.
1. Stay Put, Kill 2 Needs with 1 Player
Every analyst, pundit and expert prognosticator—including yours truly—would have wagered a first born on the 49ers moving up in Round 1.
Mock trades of forthcoming progeny aside, Baalke did not sacrifice any draft capital in order to trade up for an exorbitantly priced, big-name talent. He didn’t mortgage future picks for the likes of wide receiver Mike Evans or cornerback Justin Gilbert.
Rather, he selected safety Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois. He took a pro-ready, versatile defensive back who can cover the slot, man deep center field and perform capably against the run.
Instead of drafting the ultra-talented but mechanically flawed Bradley Roby (who went No. 31), he acquired a “very physical football player”—a system fit who can “[line] up all over the place,” according to Baalke via 49ers.com.
The scouts at ESPN Insider agree (subscription required):
With [Antoine] Bethea filling the strong safety role and 2013 first-round pick Eric Reid at free safety, Ward's versatility and ability to hold up in man coverage and defending the run will be appealing as a slot defender in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's heavy Cover 2 scheme.
He will take over the nickel position vacated by Carlos Rogers for the next couple of seasons. He will do the same at safety for Bethea—who turns 30 in July—at some point down the line.
As a final tidbit, the folks at CBS Sports ranked Ward as the 33rd overall prospect. So as the 30th player taken, the value is just about spot on.
And it only gets better from here on out.
2. Land the Top WR—Before Round 2 Even Begins
Roughly four hours before the start of Round 2 on Friday, Baalke landed the top wideout available—in or outside of the draft.
He infused the 49ers offense with a three-time 1,000-yard receiver who owns 28 career touchdowns in the NFL. He secured a slot and outside-capable weapon that will solidify the depth chart and enhance the Colin Kaepernick-led passing attack.
Johnson, a San Francisco native, can only feel comfortable returning to his Bay Area roots.
Could any unproven NCAA prospect in Rounds 2-3 say, bring or feel the same?
Once again, Baalke didn’t surrender any undue draft picks when addressing this team’s primary need. And the only one he parted with would actually return to its rightful owner in due time.
3. Trade Back, Acquire...Trade Up, Fortify
San Francisco moved back in the second round from No. 56 to No. 63 in a trade with the Denver Broncos. It also received pick No. 171 and a fourth-rounder in 2015 (told you so).
With the two selections they just received, the 49ers then moved up to No. 57. They drafted running back Carlos Hyde of Ohio State.
Hyde was indeed the best available player at his position, as well as the best available prospect among the entire class with the 49ers on the clock late in Round 2. Talk about value.
As it pertains to need, Frank Gore—the franchise’s all-time leading rusher—turns 31 on Wednesday (May 14). Gore remains a physically transcendent player, but he’s approaching both the last year of his contract and no-man’s land for NFL running backs.
Hyde can thus split carries with Gore now and do the same with the still-recovering Marcus Lattimore in 2015. Kendall Hunter becomes a free agent at the end of this season, while the underutilized LaMichael James finds himself as the odd man out.
ESPN Insider further praised the “excellent value here” and noted Hyde’s “size to handle a heavy workload in the 49ers' run-heavy offense and [to] help keep quarterback Colin Kaepernick upright in pass protection.” We all know how important that is to earning playing time from running backs coach Tom Rathman.
Value, continuity and healthy franchise quarterbacks—Baalke is just getting started, folks.
4. Move Farther Back—Address Immediate and Distant Future
The Niners crafty front office leader actually succeeded at one-upping his need-value-depth selection from Round 2.
After moving back from No. 61 to No. 70 and acquiring pick No. 150 from the Jacksonville Jaguars, Baalke drafted USC center Marcus Martin early in the third round.
Martin was the highest-rated center by ESPN Insider (No. 37), CBS Sports (No. 48) and NFL.com’s Mike Mayock. That latter source called him “a big-bodied kid who fits exactly what San Francisco is…a big, powerful, run-the-football kind of team.”
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports went even further, saying the former Trojan was a “great pick” who “fills a hole”—ending his commentary with “Value. Value. Value.”
Martin also brings tremendous versatility to the 49ers. He can back up either guard position or compete with Daniel Kilgore for the starting center job immediately in Week 1. He can even serve as the future left guard if Mike Iupati leaves in free agency in 2015.
After tallying an absurd plus-33 (ESPN Insider) and plus-22 (CBS Sports) with Martin in terms of big-board value, Baalke came back down to earth for his subsequent picks.
5. Keep It Original, Pick Up Underrated Depth
Now, just because the 49ers stayed put in the middle and bottom of Round 3, doesn’t mean they became passive to a fault.
With the team’s original No. 77 selection, Baalke grabbed Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Borland. He then used San Francisco’s compensatory pick for Clemson offensive lineman Brandon Thomas at No. 100 overall.
Borland is undersized at 5’11’’, 248 pounds and has very un-Baalke-like arms at just 29.25’’ long. But what he lacks in physical measurables, he makes up for in pure gridiron intelligence, intangibles and passion.
Longtime analyst Rob Rang of CBS Sports labeled him as “quite possibly the most instinctive defender at any position in the draft.” The even longer-tenured evaluator Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN Insider (subscription required) deemed Borland as “one of the best pure football players” in this class.
Baalke said it most succinct and articulately, noting “[he’s] everything you’re looking for from a DNA standpoint.”
Or if you’re head coach Jim Harbaugh: “He’s like a bowling ball hitting pins. He’s got that kind of strike.”
One way or another, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 will fill in for NaVorro Bowman until his midseason recovery is complete. His utility will also extend to special teams alongside fellow inside ‘backers Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody.
Thomas, for his part, was an injury-based value grab late on Day 2.
He was originally considered a second-round product but saw his stock drop after tearing his ACL in predraft workouts in April.
Yet as we saw last year, the 49ers are plenty comfortable using a redshirt season on talented prospects (see: Lattimore, Tank Carradine). Plus, getting a player who Prisco qualified as having “first-round ability” and one who was still ranked 83rd by ESPN Insider all the way down at No. 100 is an absolute steal.
Said Baalke: “[He] was the highest player on our board once we made our pick. The value was just too high to pass up.”
Most importantly, Thomas reinforces an already top area of strength for San Francisco. He can back up tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis and can develop into a “star guard when he comes back,” according to Kiper.
And as opposed to Borland, Thomas’ massive 34.6’’ arms are very much Baalke-like.
But we’ll just settle for best player available.
6. Eliminate Top Remaining Need Early Saturday Morning
When the NFL draft entered its final day, Baalke assuaged any lingering concerns 49er fans may have had just past the nine o’clock hour.
Before they could even get their first cup of Saturday morning coffee, the Niner GM tabbed South Carolina wide receiver Bruce Ellington with the sixth pick of Round 4, No. 106 overall.
Even better than the selections that came before him, Ellington represented a plus-29 (CBS Sports) and plus-48 (ESPN Insider) value addition, respectively, based off notable big boards. Also remember that Baalke traded out of the third round with the Cleveland Browns and still managed this individual haul.
That equates to shooting fish in a barrel, stealing candy from a baby and straight-up highway robbery wrapped into one stellar NFL prospect.
The 5’9’’, 197-pound Ellington is a quick-twitch wideout who possesses impressive body control, ball skills and the ability to separate. While small of stature, the former collegiate point guard is powerfully built, ultra competitive and backs down from no one.
Indeed, the scouts at ESPN Insider credit his reliable hands, “excellent play speed” and “toughness [when] working the middle of the field.” They believe the 49ers will utilize him “in the slot in three-receiver sets, where he can use his quickness to separate from defenders.”
Okay, anyone who’s watched the 49ers in recent years understands how seldom offensive coordinator Greg Roman employs these formations. True—but it’s a good thing the head coach has final say over play-calling.
“Another versatile, very good athlete,” said Harbaugh via 49ers.com. “[I] look forward to exploring how many different ways we can use him.”
Not to beat a dead horse, but the value here is just fantastic. Baalke eliminated San Francisco’s top remaining need via a fourth-round prospect who should have gone in the second. He acquired a guy with the necessary skills, smarts and culture-bettering intangibles to excel with the Red and Gold.
The always astute Kiper maintains that Ellington “isn’t a far cry from Brandin Cooks,” who went 20th overall to the New Orleans Saints. The equally respected Rang of CBS Sports holds that his “thick frame, raw athleticism…versatility” and “history of making the game-changing play” could make him the next Randall Cobb.
Like we said earlier—it’s a case of highway robbery of the most impactful kind.
7. Low Risk, High Reward, NFL Measurables
During ESPN’s Saturday telecast, unrivaled draft expert and six-time NFL Executive of the Year Bill Polian explained teams’ criteria for takings players on the final day.
He said that front office decision-makers ultimately select prospects they believe can make the team based off NFL-quality traits and physical measurables. Compelling box-score statistics, on the other hand, actually fall in the category of numbers that do lie.
For instance, a cornerback who compiled seven interceptions and 15 pass breakups during his senior year, but is one who ran a poor 40, has short arms and lacks natural athleticism will not necessarily make the squad.
To the contrary, a defensive end who possesses above-average speed, power and length, yet didn’t register a single sack during his final collegiate season would qualify for an NFL roster.
Fortunately for 49ers fans, their team had little difficulty finding NCAA assets that fit the latter category.
Of Baalke’s final six selections, three are physical marvels, two bring physical capabilities and one is a positional stalwart who fell solely due to injury.
Oh, and each one fills a legitimate depth-related need. We’ll begin with the first two.
Defensive back Dontae Johnson (6’2’’, 200 lbs, 4.45 40) boasts an exceptional combination of height, weight and speed, according to ESPN Insider. The versatile defender has an “athletic frame…with good bulk for [a] corner and size potential for [a] safety.”
His aggressive mentality and coverage instincts will put him in the good graces of 49er defensive coaches. His third-round grade will do the same for the general manager who found him late in the fourth (No. 129).
Defensive end Aaron Lynch (Round 5, No. 150) is an absolute specimen. He stands in at 6’5’’, 249 pounds and has long arms (34’’), big hands (10.25’’) and great speed (4.65 40 at his pro day). The scouts at CBS Sports note that he “has room to add mass without losing a step, and offers the versatility of lining up at either end” not to mention the “interior on passing downs.”
However, Lynch comes with considerable baggage.
Without going into too much detail, it’s worth noting that ESPN Insider has cited numerous NFL scouts who “have vocalized concerns regarding his mental makeup, football character, true commitment to the game, self-discipline and maturity level.” He also transferred to South Florida after just one year at Notre Dame and has dealt with homesickness and weight issues.
All that said, ESPN reporter Bill Williamson stressed that the entire 49ers organization performed its due diligence on Lynch. That certainly included coach Harbaugh.
“This is a good young man who needs direction, a good structure around him where [he] has men to look up to, to have a chance to emulate,” Harbaugh said via 49ers.com. “He’ll thrive in that kind of environment…He has a chance to be successful, we felt.”
Lynch unequivocally has all the “physical gifts” needed by an NFL defensive end and has “appeared unstoppable at times” on the field, per CBS Sports’ Derek Stephens. If he hones his skill set and realizes his full potential, the 49ers will have quite the dynamic pass-rusher stashed in their back pocket.
8. Rounding Things out with a Future Bang
Let’s wrap things up, shall we?
Cornerback Keith Reaser (Round 5, No. 170) offers solid late-round value. He is one of Baalke’s redshirt candidates due to a still-recovering knee injury and rare 4.3 speed, according to NFL Network’s Mike Mayock (via 49ers.com).
Fellow corner Kenneth Acker (Round 6, No. 180) is a Southern Methodist University product who has a good chance of making San Francisco’s roster, per Gil Brandt of NFL Network (via 49ers.com).
Seventh-round pick Kaleb Ramsey (No. 243) will bring competition to the defensive front. Baalke decided to take a zero-risk chance on a talented prospect who “scouts [grew] tired of grading.”
Lastly, Trey Millard (No. 245) was the “top fullback in the draft,” in the eyes of one Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required). A knee injury led to his descent into the 49ers lap in Round 7.
Baalke points out that he “played a lot of football at a big-time program,” while Harbaugh hints at a “possibility that he plays next year…as a fullback [or] H-back.”
So, two depth-chart-bolstering corners, an intriguing trench-roaming defender and the draft’s highest-rated fullback comprised Baalke’s last four selections?
Since three mascots and a towel boy would have sufficed at this point, this quality foursome merely solidified what the NFL world already knew.
Niners general manager Trent Baalke and his staff are some of the best in the draft-day business.
And it seems they put an indelible stamp on the process this time around with an unmatched A+ class—however much rival executives might be loath to admit it.
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