Baalke has had the golden touch in last two drafts
Directly outside the front doors at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara, construction has begun on what promises to be a grandiose football facility. Inside those doors, the construction of a serious NFL contender continues in full force as Trent Baalke and Co. ramp up their preparations for the upcoming NFL draft.
For Baalke, the team’s general manager and the NFL’s reigning Executive of the Year, this is unquestionably one of the most exciting and gratifying times of the year.
And also one of the most significant.
“This team is getting deeper and more competitive, and we’re doing everything we can to be as competitive as we can in a very tough business,” Baalke said Wednesday when he fielded questions from the media, with next week’s three-day college lottery being the primary topic of discussion.
With jackhammers jolting and bulldozers digging just yards away amidst a whirlwind of activity taking place on the groundbreaking of the team’s new stadium, Baalke focused in on the draft process that has injected the 49ers with loads of fresh talent since he took over as San Francisco’s personnel chief two years ago.
“That’s where my main focus is right now,” Baalke said. “It’s in creating as much competition on this team as we can and getting it as good as we can make it over the next three months to get ready for what hopefully proves to be a very successful 2012 season.”
Baalke ostensibly made the 49ers better over the past month during the first stage of offseason personnel activity by adding free agents such as Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Brandon Jacobs and Rock Cartwright to the roster and re-signing key holdover veterans such as Alex Smith, Carlos Rogers, Ahmad Brooks and Ted Ginn Jr.
The latter half of that process is called keeping the gang together, and that’s certainly what the 49ers want to do after a turnaround 2011 season that saw the team emerge from an eight-year non-winning drought with a stunning return to NFL prominence that included a 14-4 finish and near-miss overtime loss in the NFC Championship Game.
But now comes perhaps the most vital opportunity to make the 49ers better and keep them better over the long haul: The NFL draft, the true lifeblood of any successful organization.
And the draft is where Baalke is totally in his element.
“I enjoy the draft process a lot,” he said. “It’s what we work for. You put 365 days of work in to get to this point. We’re prepared for it. And I feel if you’re prepared, those decisions are very easy to make on draft day.
“You draft players to play ’em. We like our roster. But we also believe that there’s a lot of work to be done. You’re always looking, especially early in the draft, for guys that can come in and get it done.”
The 49ers, with Baalke running the operation, have done a marvelous job of finding those kind of players on draft weekend in recent years, and that has played a significant role in turning the team into a winner again.
Over the previous two years, the 49ers drafted 18 players, and 15 remain on the roster. At least half of them have become key contributors in the team’s rise.
Two of them already are entrenched as starters along the team’s much-improved offensive line. Another is a first-team All-Pro linebacker. Another nearly broke the NFL record last year for most sacks in a season by a rookie. Yet another made an improbable conversion from defensive end to become a starting fullback as a rookie.
First-round outside linebacker/defensive end Aldon Smith, third-round cornerback Chris Culliver, fourth-round running back Kendall Hunter and seventh-round fullback Bruce Miller all made an impact and a difference in their NFL debuts last season. They were some of the youngsters that transformed the 49ers into a team that truly may be just another player or two away from the organization’s newfound Super Bowl dreams.
Those players could be found in the draft, as Baalke has so shrewdly and successfully demonstrated the past two years.
He won’t have the luxury this year of the 11th and 13th overall picks like he had in 2010. He won’t have the seventh overall pick like he had last year. But that doesn’t seem to make much difference in Baalke’s outlook. The 49ers, by virtue of the 2011 success, have the 30th overall pick in the first round this year along with six other end-of-each-round selections, and Baalke plans to make the most of them.
“You go into this draft trying to identify the guys that can help this football team win, and we’ve done a good job of that,” Baalke said. “We have to continue to do a good job of that in evaluating the right players for this system and this organization. There’s good players to be found. You see it every year. You saw it last year with some of our later-round picks. You see it around the league with guys that are picked in the fifth-sixth-seventh rounds that go on to have very good years as young players and very good careers.”
“There’s good players. You just have to identify them, and a lot of it has to do with the fit. Do they fit the system? Can you put them in the best possible position to be successful? It doesn’t pay to draft a guy that doesn’t fit. You’re not putting him in a position to be successful. So we put a lot of time and effort into that, making sure that the individuals that we select fit what we’re going to be asking them to do at every position.”
The Niners already have identified the approximately 150 prospects they will consider on their draft board.
Baalke already has one particular player in mind the team is targeting with its top pick. With most of the work done on the team’s draft board, the next week will be spent honing the process before the draft extravaganza begins next week in New York.
“We’ve had meetings all week long with different position groups and just trying to finalize the board as best we can, which is close,” Baalke said. “I’d say it’s 90 percent finished at this point. And we’ve still got some tweaks that we’re going to make over the next 4, 5, 6 days.
“That’s one of the final things we do, once we get the guys on the board. We’re always talking about them in that way. But I think it’ll be Sunday when we sit down with the personnel staff and go through each guy that’s on our board (and) really determine, do they deserve (to be there) or not. If they’re on our board, we’re willing to draft them. If they’re up there, we’re saying as an organization that we’re committed to making that pick.”
And most of the picks the 49ers have made under Baalke’s watch have been the right ones. They’re looking for similar results when they go on the clock next week.