Trent Baalke: Evaluating 49ers General Manager’s Tenure in San Francisco


Based on recent evaluation of the 2015 San Francisco 49ers, their last-place offense and the 2-6 record this season, it’s easy to assume general manager Trent Baalke has to bear a large portion of the blame for what has been a widespread disaster within the franchise.

Yes, Baalke does deserve a sizable finger pointed in his direction as any general manager should when a team is lacking talent and direction in so many different areas. But his efforts this season, and those leading up to this point, don’t occur in a vacuum.

So do the 49ers have a good general manager? Or should Baalke be considered a bad one?

We won’t go into Baalke’s disagreements with former head coach Jim Harbaugh — yes, that’s very important but will take this piece in an entirely different direction. Rather, let’s evaluate what Baalke’s primary responsibility is: formulating the 49ers on-field roster.

The San Jose Mercury News‘ Marcus Thompson came to a conclusion Baalke is primarily responsible for the team’s struggles in 2015 and cites a three-year stretch of bad drafts and poor free-agent additions as the biggest culprits.

He wrote:

"Change the quarterback, restructure the game plan, sign a running back, none of it matters. The 49ers aren’t talented enough to compete with good NFL teams.That is because Baalke let some of the wrong players walk in free agency, and several of the free agents he brought in have been terrible. But most damaging to the franchise has been three years of subpar drafting."

Baalke’s Draft Efforts

While comparing to the rising efforts of the Oakland Raiders, Thompson broke down Baalke’s efforts in recent drafts by classifying each draft pick into distinct categories — the breakdown can be seen below.

Without doubt, Baalke’s drafting efforts in 2010 and 2011 were superb as Thompson states. Let’s take a look at those years’ classes.


  • T Anthony Davis
  • G Mike Iupati
  • S Taylor Mays
  • LB NaVorro Bowman
  • RB Anthony Dixon
  • TE Nate Byham
  • WR Kyle Williams
  • DB Phillip Adams


  • LB Aldon Smith
  • QB Colin Kaepernick
  • CB Chris Culliver
  • RB Kendall Hunter
  • G Daniel Kilgore
  • WR Ronald Johnson
  • DB Colin Jones
  • FB Bruce Miller
  • G Michael Person
  • DB Curtis Holcomb

Out of those two combined years, the 49ers netted a total of 10 stalwart pieces on the roster and three Pro Bowlers (linebacker NaVorro Bowman, linebacker Aldon Smith and offensive guard Mike Iupati). That’s pretty good for even the best of general managers.

Then, of course, there was the 2012 draft in which most 49ers fans would rather forget. The first-round selection of wide receiver A.J. Jenkins capped off a disastrous class that never positively impacted the franchise in subsequent years.

2013 is dangerously approaching a bust status as well. Baalke traded up to grab safety Eric Reid in Round 1. Reid made it to the Pro Bowl his rookie season and remains a solid starter within the revamped 49ers secondary.

Safety Eric Reid has been one of the better first-round selections Baalke has had during his 49ers tenure. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

But defensive end Tank Carradine (Round 2), tight end Vance McDonald (Round 2), linebacker Corey Lemonier (Round 3), wide receiver Quinton Patton (Round 4), running back Marcus Lattimore (Round 4), defensive tackle Quinton Dial (Round 5) and linebacker Nick Moody (Round 6) — not listed are the seventh-round picks — don’t exactly fill a roster to any desired degree.

Out of the aforementioned crop, Dial is the only noteworthy player to have assumed a starting role. He’s been good, but the 49ers have yet to cash in on high-ranking investments in Carradine, McDonald or Lemonier. Lattimore retired and Patton, while flashing some moments of brilliance, hasn’t emerged as a legitimate receiving threat (numerous injuries have hampered his efforts here).

2014 has a bit better of a mix.

  • DB Jimmie Ward
  • RB Carlos Hyde
  • C Marcus Martin
  • LB Chris Borland
  • G Brandon Thomas
  • WR Bruce Ellington
  • CB Dontae Johnson
  • LB Aaron Lynch
  • CB Keith Reaser
  • CB Kenneth Acker
  • DE Kaleb Ramsey
  • FB Trey Millard

The book is still out on defensive back Jimmie Ward. He struggled his rookie season — not uncommon for first-year defensive backs — before a foot injury sidelined him for the second half of 2014. He’s looked much better this season.

Running back Carlos Hyde needs no additional praise. That was a no-brainer pick. And linebacker Chris Borland would have been a great pickup had he not retired during the offseason — we’ll get to that in a moment. Linebacker Aaron Lynch and cornerback Kenneth Acker have also been great additions.

But look at the selections along the offensive line: center Marcus Martin and guard Brandon Thomas.

Thomas isn’t starting even after being redshirted his rookie season, and Martin has consistently been one of the lowest-ranked pro centers this season according to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.

Wondering where the roots of the current 49ers O-line struggles reside? Here you go.

Thomas and/or Martin were supposed to be the players to replace left guard Mike Iupati when he eventually departed via free agency prior to the season. And yet Baalke was left scrambling for a solution entering 2015 but for some reasons beyond his own control.

As is the case with some of Baalke’s 2014 selections, the book is still out on some of the 49ers’ 2015 picks.

Feb 21, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Oregon defensive lineman Arik Armstead talks to the media at the 2015 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive end Arik Armstead (Round 1), safety Jaquiski Tartt (Round 2) and tight end Blake Bell (Round 4) could be really solid additions. But the remaining cast including linebacker Eli Harold (Round 3), running back Mike Davis (Round 4), punter Bradley Pinion (Round 5), guard Ian Silberman (Round 6), guard Trenton Brown (Round 7) and tight end Busta Anderson (Round 7) didn’t exactly give the 49ers what they needed in a tumultuous offseason.

Wide receiver DeAndre Smelter was left off that list as he recovers from a collegiate knee injury. Drafting injured players has been something of a Baalke specialty. Lattimore’s retirement was mentioned already, but Carradine was supposed to be the player replacing retired defensive end Justin Smith.

That hasn’t happened either. And the 49ers invested a second-round pick on the former Florida State Seminole.

Baalke’s efforts to acquire draft picks have largely been seen as one of his primary strengths. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Baalke and the Trade Market

Baalke does have one very-solid ability, and that is his knack for adding picks to the 49ers’ draft efforts. Just take a look at the number of selections San Francisco has had in recent drafts. True, some of these were compensatory. But Baalke has a great ability to move pieces and acquire a plethora of picks in return.

Dealing quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013 ended up giving the 49ers multiple picks with which Baalke continued on the exchange.

Trading for wide receiver Stevie Johnson prior to the 2014 season worked out for the first half that year. And the 49ers, essentially, got that fourth-round pick back in return. But Johnson didn’t pan out in San Francisco and was gone after one season.

No damage, no complaint.

And the recent trade of tight end Vernon Davis to the Denver Broncos, combined with trades of punter Andy Lee (Cleveland Browns) and tight end Derek Carrier (Washington Redskins) added to Baalke’s pending stockpile.

But, of course, there was the dealing of tight end Asante Cleveland to the New England Patriots for offensive guard Jordan Devey. It wasn’t a bad trade, per se, given what San Francisco gave up. But Devey isn’t a starting-caliber lineman. And yet he’s starting now.

Baalke and the Free-Agent Market

The 49ers, in recent seasons, haven’t been big players on the free-agent market. And this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Good teams are built though the draft and only supplemented via free agency.

But Baalke was aggressive this offseason in pursuit of some free-agent talent.

And it’s safe to say his recent efforts here have been less than stellar. True, the acquisition of veteran safety Antoine Bethea prior to 2014 worked out well. But his 2015 free-agent class has been mostly atrocious.

Jun 11, 2015; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith (82) during minicamp at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Torrey Smith, San Francisco’s big offseason addition, could still be an integral part of the 49ers offense for years to come. The book is still out on that selection.

But consider the other free agents. Cornerback Shareece Wright and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett are no longer with the team. Right tackle Erik Pears is one of the lowest-ranked lineman in the league this season.

And, perhaps, one of the poorer decisions was to let Iupati walk via free agency. It’s hard to state whether or not the 49ers had any intention to re-sign him given what he was bound to make on the open market. But it’s looking like a bad choice to let him go.

The sudden retirement of linebacker Chris Borland denied the 49ers much-needed depth at the inside linebacker position. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Baalke and the Uncontrollable Factors

The O-line is, with little doubt, the primary culprit behind San Francisco’s woes in 2015. Yes, the coaching and play-calling has to bear a large portion of the blame. But that’s another article for another time.

In all likelihood, Baalke couldn’t have anticipated the retirement of right tackle Antony Davis, which forced the 49ers to scramble for some sort of solution — it hasn’t worked. And the lingering injury effects of center Daniel Kilgore have also hurt tremendously.

Smith’s retirement during the offseason was easier to predict. But Aldon Smith’s legal issues, even if a trend had been set, prompted even more problems on the defensive side of the ball.

Factor in the retirements of Borland and linebacker Patrick Willis, and it’s hard to assume even the best of general managers would have been able to approach this season in stride and not missing a beat.

The departures and absences opened up the door for depth. But the depth hasn’t exactly been that good.

Baalke and the Present & Future

Simply put, the 49ers are a team lacking in talent and without a coaching staff capable of maximizing what is there right now.

Thompson goes into some added detail:

"If the 49ers had some young core players to build on, this season could have a much different tone. The promotion of [Jim] Tomsula from defensive line coach to head coach would then make much more sense, as he could grow and develop promising young talent. That’s how [Jim] Harbaugh did it, grew with the players he could mold."

Thompson is correct with his analysis about having developing promising talent. That’s what the 49ers need to do.

And, on the positive side of things, San Francisco does have some young core players around which to build a franchise back up. Hyde is special, and the 49ers likely have something promising in players like Acker, Lynch and Tartt.

If players like Armstead, Bell, Smelter and Ward continue to get better, San Francisco’s chances should improve as well.

But that won’t be the case in 2015, at least as far as the record and standings are concerned. This team is bad right now and lacks the cohesiveness to point itself in any discernible direction.

If Baalke is largely responsible for the 2015 49ers problems, he’ll have to be responsible for the actions to rectify them. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless whether you like him or not, the current situation puts even more pressure on Baalke to improve this roster in 2016 and beyond. His last three drafts haven’t been great. But the body of work hasn’t exactly been terrible either.

Yet, for the 49ers to notably improve, Baalke will need to replicate efforts seen in 2010 and 2011 and completely avoid the disastrous 2012 draft and suspect 2013 class.

So what’s the conclusion? Baalke has had better days than what has been seen in recent years. That’s easy to assume. But the fallout from missed chances in 2012 through now is revealing itself in painful ways in what has been, ultimately, a horrendous season in San Francisco.

Yes, Baalke had to deal with some extraordinary circumstances this offseason. But the efforts to rectify these have been less than stellar.

Will it get any better moving forward? We don’t really know.

Next: 49ers Trade Tight End Vernon Davis

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