Is Trent Baalke to Blame for the 49ers' Recent Struggles?
Prior to the hiring of Chip Kelly as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, rumors were swirling that general manager Trent Baalke did not want to hire anyone who would threaten his power. This immediately brought me back to two seasons ago, when internal strife between the front office and coaches seemed to pull this team apart.
The power struggle between Baalke and then-head coach Jim Harbaugh during the 2014 season ultimately ended with owner Jed York siding with his general manager and releasing Harbaugh from his contract. This, of course, was despite Harbaugh taking San Francisco to three straight NFC titles games and a Super Bowl berth and amassing a 44-19-1 record over just four seasons.
But with the Niners tumbling down the NFC standings this past season, one has to wonder if York made the right decision and whether Baalke has managed the personnel on this team well enough to deserve all the power he's managed to hold onto so dearly.
A Team in Decline
Following the 2011 season, Baalke was hailed for turning a 6-10 team into a 13-3 playoff contender in just one season thanks to the hiring of head coach Jim Harbaugh, as well as deft draft moves including the selection of disruptive outside linebacker/defensive end Aldon Smith in the first round, trading up in the second round to take the team's quarterback of the (near) future in Colin Kaepernick, and selecting later-round gems in offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore and converted fullback Bruce Miller,
But perhaps a sign of Baalke's mismanagement of the roster, the team has hired their third head coach in as many seasons, and only three members of the heralded 2011 draft class remain on the roster: Kaepernick, who was unceremoniously benched for Blaine Gabbert midseason, Kilgore, who spent the first 12 weeks of the season on the reserve/PUP list before being slowly worked back in as the team's center, and Miller, who was last seen lead blocking for the likes of Shaun Draughn.
Since the 49ers' surprise breakout campaign of 2011, Baalke has seen his team go from a Super Bowl squad in 2012 -- when the team ranked sixth in the league in offensive efficiency and fifth in the league in defensive efficiency by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics -- to one that ended the 2015 season ranked in the bottom six in the league both offensively and defensively.
Many will point to the mass exodus of players from the team prior to the start of the 2015 season as reason for the team's precipitous decline, and they would be right to do so. With key members of the team -- including All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, standout rookie Chris Borland, and Pro Bowler Justin Smith -- all retiring, the team's depth chart took a major blow.
Yet, the loss of talent on this team can't be entirely blamed on unforeseen retirements. The front office also let a number of contributors leave in free agency, including Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox, and Dan Skuta, and one could also argue that Baalke failed to do enough to either retain this talent or provide adequate depth on this team via either the draft or free agency to cushion all these blows.
If Baalke can receive credit for the draft-day moves back in 2011 that helped propel this team into a Super Bowl contender, then he can surely also be blamed for a number of missteps since then that have turned this team into a 5-11 league bottom-dweller.
Baalke's wheeling-and-dealing style has allowed him to amass a number of draft picks each season, with the Niners owning on average 10 picks per draft since 2012. Yet, he's done little to improve the 49ers roster with all these selections.
Take for example the infamous Alex Smith trade that ultimately netted the team five players in Cornellius Carradine, Corey Lemonier, Carlos Hyde, Chris Borland, and Steve Johnson for the team's backup quarterback. As of the 2015 season, only Hyde has ascended the depth charts to become a significant member of this roster. And even then, despite Hyde earning the lead back role on the Niners, his -0.02 Rushing NEP per attempt still ranked him as just the 32nd most efficient tailback with at least 50 carries last year.
Things only get worse when we look at the rest of the players from this trade: third-year veterans Carradine and Lemonier combined for just three starts this past season, and Borland (retired) and Johnson (waived) are both no longer with the team.
Indeed, since 2012, the team has spent high draft picks on the likes of A.J. Jenkins, LaMichael James, Eric Reid, Carradine, Lemonier, Jimmie Ward, Hyde, Borland, Arik Armstead, and Jaquiski Tartt. And while Reid and Hyde have been standout performers for this team -- with Reid being elected to the 2013 Pro Bowl -- the same cannot be said for the rest of these picks taken in the first three rounds of the draft.
Misses in Free Agency
In free agency, Baalke has seemed content to allow key contributors walk in free agency without bringing back much in return.
In 2013, he allowed free safety Dashon Goldson to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right after he was named a first-team All-Pro the prior season, and then in 2014, he let strong safety Donte Whitner leave for the Browns -- who would then be named to the Pro Bowl that same year.
In their place, Baalke brought in the aforementioned standout Reid via the draft and then signed free agent safety Antoine Bethea away from the Colts, the latter of which graded out as one of the worst safeties in coverage according to Pro Football Focus at the time of his signing.
On the offensive end, Baalke allowed one of the best run-blocking guards in the league in Mike Iupati to sign with Arizona this offseason, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the Cardinals soon transformed from one of the worst run blocking units in the league in 2014 -- ranking as the seventh least efficient rushing team in the league that season -- to the eighth most efficient team in the league in 2015.
Wideout Michael Crabtree was allowed to move across the Bay to play for the Oakland Raiders where he has turned in one of the better seasons of his career. His 86.5 Reception NEP this past season was not only the 22nd highest mark among all wide receivers this season but also was more than 30 points above that of both lead wideout Anquan Boldin (56.38) and the newcomer Torrey Smith (53.38).
As the old saying goes, hindsight is 20/20, but it's clear that Baalke has not made the wisest of decisions in regards to managing the Niners' roster the past half decade.
And now with his team trying to claw their way back out of the bottom of the NFC West standings, the Niners' general manager has new head coach Chip Kelly, 12 picks in the 2016 Draft, and the upcoming free agent market to turn things around if he hopes to keep his job safe after next season.