Only a few times a year do local media members get to put 49ers general manager Trent Baalke on the record talking player evaluation and draft strategy.
When the 49ers media contingent spoke with Baalke for nearly an hour last week much of the focus was on Aldon Smith and a string of off-the-field issues that have marred the team's offseason as it looks to reach the conference title game and beyond for the fourth straight time.
RELATED: BAALKE: 49ERS SUPPORTING ALDON SMITH
For the sake of narrative sanity (or mine), instead of delving even further into those ongoing investigations, fifth-year options, contract extensions and potential suspensions, let's focus on scouting.
(Sidenote: Baalke described the extra two weeks prior to the draft as "murderous" and I have a hard time finding anyone that would disagree.)
Much of the discussion about talent evaluation Friday with Baalke focused on wide receivers. That discussion will weigh heavily at the start of the draft May 8 given the depth of the class and team's need at the position.
As Baalke continues to try and erase A.J. Jenkins from his resume, he will continually be forced to answer questions about evaluating receivers and what translates from the college game to the pros.
"(It's) hard to determine if anything translates. The game's different," said Baalke. "The route trees, the amount of routes, the systems. You see a lot of receivers - getting them matched up in the right system, taking advantage of what they can and can't do.
"Most of the time when mistakes are made, it's more in the makeup of the player than it is the physical traits of the player. And that's something that sometimes is harder to determine. You can't always see that on film. So there's a lot of things that go into it."
It sounded like Baalke was making a reference to Jenkins - without the questioner asking about Jenkins directly - who became glaring mistake in retrospect after he was taken No. 30 in 2012. But given his willingness to indicate "mistakes are made" when a player doesn't have the right makeup, it gives a small lens into what the team will be thinking come draft day.
"I think (receivers) got a little bit of air about them, swagger if you want to call it. You're looking for confidence," Baalke said when asked about evaluating receivers specifically. "You're looking for guys that the stage isn't too big for. You're looking strong, strong men. Both in how how they play and how they come across. It's a battle out there. When you're at that position to try and get yourself freed up in the land of giants. It's a battle. You got to be prepared for it mentally and physically."
It's clear Jenkins didn't exhibit these traits during his rookie season and sophomore training camp before getting traded to the Chiefs for Jon Baldwin. And it was pretty apparent as early as his rookie minicamp by most accounts. On the other hand, it's certain these characteristics can be found in Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, both of whom have uncertain long-term futures with the team. Boldin will turn 34 in October while Crabtree is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is slated for free agency next spring.
Baalke was asked directly about former Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks, who stood 5-foot-10 at the combine after winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top wideout. There's little to question about Cooks' college production (128 catches, 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final season with the Beavers). But given his size, there's the obvious query about whether or not he deserves a first-round grade, or if he's a serious candidate for the 49ers to take at 30.
"Obviously Brandin Cooks is vertically challenged. Now you got to determine does he play 5-9? Or does he play six foot? Because Steve Smith was 5-9 but he played 6-1. There's big receivers that play small. There's 6-foot guys that play 5-10. Can they go get the ball? Can they play the ball? There's so many things that factor into it. And then it's trying to marry their talents with your system. Because systems matter. I've said that many a time. Some people maybe don't believe in that. I'm a firm believer systems matter. That's why our players tend to look similar at positions. When you look at positions, there's a lot of similarities to the ways guys look. There's a reason for that," Baalke said.
Baalke's mention of players looking similar at the same positions connects the dots given his current batch of receivers. For the most part, Boldin and Crabtree are alike in that they excel in shorter and intermediate routes rather than stretching defenses vertically. But considering the team lacks a deep threat on the outside, Cooks could fit there, indicated by his 4.33 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, the best mark of any receiver.
If Baalke sticks by the "systems" idea that lends towards players having similar physical traits, then perhaps Cooks doesn't fit. The 49ers had Davonte Adams in for a visit during the team's local pro day Friday who has been likened to Crabtree. Others like Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, Allen Robinson and Cody Latimer fit the bigger, more physical mold of the team's current starters. But that's under the assumption the 49ers take a receiver in the early rounds. There's enough depth in the class they could find a useful piece in the third or fourth rounds. This is also a good draft for corners, where it can be argued the 49ers have a more immediate need.
The idea of a cornerback brings something else to the forefront. At 30, San Francisco could be in range for former Ohio State cover man Bradley Roby, who visited the 49ers last week following an apparent charge for operating a vehicle while impaired. The Columbus Dispatch reported Tuesday Roby plead guilty to a lesser charge of having physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He will be penalized with a three-day driver-intervention program - a far less severe punishment than for a typical DUI.
Despite a drop in production from his second season to his third at Ohio State, many believe Roby could have the most upside of any cover corner in this draft thanks to his size, fluidity and overall athleticism. But given everything that's happened to the 49ers this offseason, they will have a hard time spinning a draft pick with an arrest so close to the draft. They have also taken a long look at Boise State pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence who was suspended twice in two seasons with the Broncos.
And while character issues often lead to a drastic drop in draft status, there have been players drafted by the 49ers with those labels that turned out to be banner citizens. NaVorro Bowman was suspended two games while at Penn State, received a year's worth of probation and faced 100 hours of community service after a fight broke out at a party in 2007. He later received another year of probation after failing to complete any of his community service.
Now, Bowman is not only one of the team's best players, but also a leader and respected voice in the locker room.
"It's a risk-reward business…and we try to take chances, calculated chances," Baalke said. "It has worked in some cases. And there's other times where the character of the individual coming into the NFL was sterling but they end being guys that get in trouble. It's not always the guys that come into the league with the checkered past that leave the league with a checkered past, it can be the opposite.
"If anyone in here has the answer to determining who is going to do what, give it to me. I could use it."
Former 49er and current Raider Tarell Brown was viewed as a first or second-round talent before he was charged with a misdemeanor for carrying weapons and drugs while at Texas. San Francisco ended up taking Brown in the fifth round and he became the team's starter and most consistent corner for the better part of the last three seasons. He was also regarded for his professionalism handling the media.
"They've got to understand the significance of their actions as men. Not as players, as men. They've got to understand what they've done something wrong, especially in the society we live in now, negativity sells. Nobody cares how many times a player goes to a children's hospital…nobody cares if the player's up at the Boys and Girls Club for three hours yesterday…Nobody writes about that," said Baalke.
Indeed, negativity has been sold by many this offseason, including a rumored trade of Jim Harbaugh, an unworkable relationship between Harbaugh and Baalke, Smith's legal troubles, the investigation in Miami involving Colin Kaepernick and more. The negative attention has been warranted (in most cases) and creates a very intriguing subplot to the draft less than two weeks out.
Will the 49ers forgo prospects that come in with legal history and/or perceived "character issues?" Or will they take "calculated risks" as they have in the past, successfully in some cases? How much will public perception play into the selection process?
Championship windows don't stay open forever. The best way to keep them open is by bringing in - and keeping - the right players. That process continues May 8 with the 2014 draft.
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