Trent Baalke has received a lot of praise since taking over as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. The 2011 Executive of the Year has done a good job bringing in smart free agent acquisitions and has shown an ability to excel on draft day. In both 2010 and 2011, a Baalke led staff had chosen franchise type players that have helped shape a Super Bowl roster. Below, we take a look at Baalke’s first two drafts, concentrating on the early rounds. While the 2012 draft could end up showing a lot of promise, it’s too early to judge those players given the role (or lack thereof) most of them had this past season.
2010 Selections (Baalke was not officially general manager yet, but he did oversee this draft and the selections)
Anthony Davis, Rutgers
That was then: The selection of Anthony Davis set a precedent that Baalke would not be hesitant to trade up and get the guy he wants as the 49ers moved up to 11 to select their tackle of the future. They gave up their fourth-round pick to the Broncos to move up the two spots the felt they needed to select Davis. Davis was a very young, physical tackle out of Rutgers that was said to have a lot of “upside.” He had an outstanding combination of size and athleticism but at 19 was raw in some aspects of his game and need time to develop them.
This is now: The translation of the term “upside” is to expect a player to take some time to develop. Davis has started since day one and has become one of the upper tier right tackles in the NFL. Not without some struggles early, he has improved each of his first three seasons and is a borderline Pro Bowler at only 23 years old. In Davis, the 49ers have a player who could be a fifteen year starter in the NFL.
Mike Iupati, Idaho
That was then: Iupati was regarded as the best guard in the 2010 draft. A mauling road grader type blocker, he was seen as a lock to be at least a good NFL player. It was a safe, smart decision by a team that desperately needed to solidify their offensive line.
This is now: The second of the 49ers two first round selections in 2010, Iupati is the anchor of 49ers dominant run game. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2012 and, like his first round counterpart Davis, has started every game since joining the team. He has been every bit as good as advertised and after his third year he is regarded as one of the best guards in the NFL.
Taylor Mays, USC
That was then: Mays was seen as a better athlete than a football player. He had amazing size and speed but often took bad angles on balls and tended to be over aggressive. His technique was viewed as sloppy.
This is now: The selection of Taylor Mays was said to be pushed for by then coach Mike Singletary. This makes sense because the team could not get him out of town quickly enough once Jim Harbaugh took over. After starting 6 games as a rookie, the 49ers traded Mays before the 2011 season to the Bengals for a 7th round pick. His play echoes the concerns teams had on draft day and he has only started 3 games in 2 years for Cincinnati.
Navorro Bowman, Penn State
That was then: A natural tackler, Bowman was said to have good range and football instincts. At 6’0 and 240 pounds, he was seen as an average sized linebacker who had some durability issues in college. His size led to some concerns that he may not be able to shed blockers. Still, some teams had a first round grade on him. The 49ers needed some youth at inside linebacker with Takeo Spikes aging.
This is now: Bowman is arguably the best selection Baalke has made in terms of value. After sitting a year behind Spikes, Bowman took over as the starter opposite Patrick Willis and quickly became one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Bowman has been a first team All Pro the last 2 seasons while leading the team in tackles. The 49ers rewarded him with a long term contract in 2012, assuring they will have the best inside linebackers in football for the foreseeable future.
Best of the rest
Late round picks tend to be a crap shoot. Without picks in rounds 4 and 5, the 49ers came away with a couple of nice role players in Anthony Dixon and Kyle Williams in the 6th. Dixon is a good special team’s player who will get the occasional carry in short yardage situations. Despite his nightmare 2011 NFC championship game, Williams has done a decent job at wide receiver when called upon. He has 35 receptions for 461 yards and 4 touchdowns in a limited role. He seemed to have some chemistry with Colin Kaepernick before suffering a season ending knee injury in 2012.
Aldon Smith, Missouri
That was then: Smith was a bit of a unexpected selection when the 49ers chose him with the seventh pick of the 2011 draft. With needs at cornerback and quarterback, it was considered a bit of a surprise the 49ers “reached” for Aldon Smith. An explosive pass rusher, Smith was said to have “upside” but would take time to transition from a 4-3 defense in college to a 3-4 in the NFL.
This is now: Aldon Smith has emerged as one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. In a part time role in 2011, he set the 49er’s rookie record for sacks with 14. The team made him a full time starter in 2012 and he responded by setting the team record in sacks with 19.5. He is an elite player who can be a cornerstone for the defense for years to come. There is some concern about how Smith finished the season. He did not record a sack in his last 6 games including the playoffs. With Justin Smith either out or too injured to play up to his standards, Aldon seemed to get swallowed up at times. He was himself battling a shoulder injury and odds are that was bothering him more than he let on.
Colin Kaepernick, Nevada
That was then: There were still questions surrounding Alex Smith being able to be a consistent starting quarterback and 49ers needed insurance. Kaepernick was seen as a project but the 49ers moved up in the 2nd round to get him anyway. He had the size, speed, and arm strength to make him a dynamic player but there were concerns about him playing in a pistol offense in college. His accuracy was questioned as he did always display touch on his passes and his elongated release caused some to question whether he had the fundamental mechanics needed coming into the league. For the second year in a row, the head coach would push Baalke to pick his guy as Jim Harbaugh advocated for the Kapernick selection.
This is now: Kapernick went from a project to a franchise quarterback within his first two seasons. Paired with Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s play far exceeded where anyone thought he would be in this early in his career. He was 5-2 in regular season starts with 10 touchdown passes to only 3 interceptions. On the season, his QB rating was 98.3. What sticks out most is his ability to make good decisions and not get rattled. His Divisional round game against the Packers was a transcending performance that saw him account for 444 total yards (263 passing, 181 rushing) and 4 total touchdowns. He showed poise and maturity beyond his years leading the team from seventeen down in the NFC Championship game and ultimately came 5 yards from a championship and quite possibly the Super Bowl MVP.
Chris Culliver, South Carolina
That was then: The 49ers traded down and selected cornerback Chris Culliver in the 3rd round. The team had a need at cornerback but Culliver was considered a reach as a lot of experts had him going later in the draft. He was versatile player with size and speed who could play both corner and safety but there were doubts about him. He struggled at cornerback at times and was not seen as a good tackler. This pick was evidence of Baalke being a general manager who would identify his guys and take them reagrdless of the backlash. He saw Culliver as a player who would fit the mold of what the team wanted in a cornerback and jumped on him.
This is now: Culliver has played very well over his first two seasons with the 49ers. Playing mostly in nickel coverage behind starters Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers, Culliver has seen plenty of action and been a key contributor to the 49er’s defense. He played more than 75 percent of the 49er’s defensive snaps in the playoffs and had a big interception in the comeback against Atlanta. Unfortunately, he is currently remembered for his bad Super Bowl. Everyone has bad games and that shouldn’t define Culliver. He’s a good cornerback and could be starting for the 49ers soon.
Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State
That was then: The 49ers needed a good number 2 option to spell Frank Gore. Hunter was a productive college player who ran for over 3,000 yards in his 2 years as a full time starter at Oklahoma State (He was injured his junior year). At 5’7, Hunter is a smaller back who was thought to be best paired with another runner in a two back system. He lacked top end speed (4.53 40) and was seen as not being a powerful runner that could push piles.
This is now: Hunter has excelled in a limited role with the 49ers. He gained 473 yards on the ground and averaged 4.2 yards per carry in his rookie season. In 2012, he rushed for 371 yards and averaged 5.2 per carry before an injury cost him the season. Hunter has been a perfect role player and compliment to Frank Gore, making the most out of his limited touches. Should he return healthy, he should continue to play a vital role in the 49er’s offense.
Best of the rest
Offensive lineman Dan Kilgore from Appalachian State was selected in the 5th round and is still an unknown. He could play a future role at center or guard for the team. He is currently a backup lineman. Fullback Bruce Miller of Central Florida was a great pick in the 7th round starting 21 games the last 2 seasons and playing a role on special teams. He has also added 23 receptions and a touchdown from the fullback position.