Six games into the regular season is way too early to gauge a team’s success for the reminder of the season, let alone making the playoffs. With ten games to go, a 5-1 record and a weak NFC West the 49ers have a 86% of making the playoffs according to the web site Make NFL Playoffs. Barring a huge meltdown by the 49ers, something I don’t see happening under Jim Harbaugh, the team is destined for the playoffs. It is also way too early to gauge the success of the 49ers 2011 draft picks but with them contributing significantly to the team’s 5-1 start, the team has some of the best young players in the NFL. There is no reason to think the young players will not get any better.
Harbaugh is a big reason why the 49ers are playing well on the field. He motivates and coaches up his players to levels they probably didn’t know they could get to. GM Trent Baalke is the reason why the players are on the field whether through draft picks or free agent signings. Baalke has been questioned on most of his moves since he was the 49ers de facto GM in 2010 and when he became the official GM in early 2011. I was one of Baalke’s early detractors and was against hiring him. At the time I thought the 49ers needed someone who had served in the GM position before and someone who was from outside the organization. Baalk since then has proven he is one of the up incoming general managers in the NFL and he will be credited with turning around the 49ers if they make the playoffs.
Baalke knows what he is doing, from selecting two offensive linemen in last year’s draft to bringing back Alex Smith when everyone was saying a change of scenery was needed for him and the 49ers, to selecting Adlon Smith in the first-round. The moves were unconventional but Baalke knew the type of players he was looking for and he didn’t care what any of the NFL pundits or the 49er Faithful had to say. With the exception of drafting former 49ers safety Taylor Mays in the second-round, it has been reported Mike Singletary insisted on drafting him, the 2010 draft class is showing its mettle.
In last year’s draft Baalke was questioned for selecting two offensive linemen in the first-round. The linemen, Anthony Davis and Mike Iuapti, were worthy of a first-round draft pick but some questioned whether one of the draft picks should have been used to fill another hole like in the secondary. After a season and a half in the NFL, Davis and Iuapti have upgraded the O-line allowing the 49ers to start 5-1 this season. Last year’s draft also saw Baalke selecting linebacker NaVarro Bowman who is putting up Pro Bowl like numbers with 56 tackles ranking him fourth in the NFL.
This seasons draft Baalke once again was questioned on his first-round draft pick selection, linebacker/defensive end Aldon Smith. Like the previous draft Baalke was questioned for selecting Smith so high when there were other players available, even at his position, whose draft stock was rated higher. When Smith was drafted I said, ‘Aldon who?’ and quickly looked up his college career. Baalke didn’t care about drafting Smith too high or what people might say. Baalke saw a player he wanted and went out and drafted him. Smith got off to a slow start but has accelerated during the 49ers four-game winning streak and has 5.5 sacks, one safety and one forced fumble. Smith is showing he is a beast rushing on the outside using his speed and strength to get around blockers.
Ever since Frank Gore was named the 49ers’ starting running back the team has been trying to find an adequate backup the offense can rely on. We have seen Maurice Hicks, DeShaun Foster, Glen Coffee and Brian Westbrook try to be Gore’s backup but ultimately fail. In this year’s draft Baalke knew he would need to draft a running back. Like his previous draft picks Baalke was second guessed with his selection of RB Kendall Hunter. Hunter was drafted in the fourth-round mainly because other teams were scared off by his small size and durability questions. Standing at 5 feet, 7 inches Hunter is showing he is just not a speed running back but he is also a physical running back. Hunter filled in nicely for Gore when he has needed the rest this season. Hunter has 240 yards from scrimmage, ranking him fifth among rookies, and has the 49ers longest catch this season with his 44-yarder against the Eagles. Hunter scored the game winning touchdown against the Bengals. For a fourth-round pick who was considered undersized Hunter is proving he can be relied on to spell Gore during games.
Two other draft picks this season that have made big impacts on the 5-1 record are CB Chris Culliver and FB Bruce Miller. Culliver, a third-round pick, was forced into the lineup in week four because of injuries and he has not disappointed since then. In the three games he has played when quarterbacks have thrown in his direction they are 6 of 12 passing for only 49 yards and no touchdowns. Culliver has one interception this season but he has cemented himself as the number three cornerback on the depth chart.
Miller was a seventh-round draft pick this season and has done well filling in for injured starting fullback Moran Norris. What is remarkable about Miller is not only that a seventh-round pick is contributing as a starter but he is a converted fullback in his first NFL season at the position. Miller played defensive end while in college but Baalke drafted him as their future fullback knowing Harbaugh and running backs coach Tom Rathman would be able to transition him into a fullback. Miller has done his part by plowing holes for Gore and pass protecting for Alex Smith.
It is no wonder that Baalke has an eye for finding talent in places others don’t see it. He has ten years of being a scout at the college and NFL levels and was the Director and VP of Player Personnel for the 49ers from 2008-2010. Combine Baalke’s eye for talent with Harbaugh’s coaching abilities and you have your reasons for the 49ers 5-1 start. During the free agency period Baalke was patience while I screamed foul for him sitting on his hands while other teams were signing players. At the time it seemed to me that Baalke was in over his head as starters on defense left for other teams while the 49ers did nothing. One of Baalke’s highlights during free agency was signing CB Carlos Rogers who has become the shutdown corner the 49ers have lacked. Fast forward to week eight and we see Baalke‘s vision for the team coming to fruition. With the way his draft picks and free agent signings are playing Baalke should be considered for NFL Executive of the Year.