For 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, football season never ends.
It’s a constant churn of talent evaluation and procurement, from in-season moves to free agency, the draft and college and NFL scouting.
No sooner were the 49ers leaving New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII than Baalke and his front-office crew were looking ahead to the 2013 season.
And, with the NFL Combine beginning Wednesday in Indianapolis, Baalke’s pre-draft phase kicks up a notch, as scouts, coaches and GMs from all over the league get a chance to watch, evaluate and interview the best college prospects in one place.
There’s no debate that Baalke has been the architect of this 49ers team and the key to unlocking success for a franchise that had been in a deep hole for almost a decade. From bringing in talent through the draft and free agency to the hiring of head coach Jim Harbaugh, Baalke’s fingerprints are all over this 49ers team.
But there’s also little doubt that – like everyone – Baalke has had great years and not-so-great years, and the Niners could benefit in a big way if Baalke has a winter/spring performance more similar to 2011 than 2012.
With as many as 14 draft picks at his disposal in the April selection process – including three third-rounders, two fifth-rounders, two sixth-rounders and four seventh-rounders – Baalke and the Niners are set up to bring in a load of talent.
But as Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat wrote this week, Baalke’s performance over the next 2-3 months may be the team’s biggest storyline of the offseason.
“He’s been inconsistent,” wrote Cohn. “In 2011, he arguably had the best offseason in the NFL, drafting Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick and Bruce Miller and signing Carlos Rogers and Jonathan Goodwin and Blake Costanzo. In 2012, Baalke had arguably the worst offseason of all the general managers in the NFL.”
Cohn notes that only one of his draft picks, LaMichael James, played in the Super Bowl. The rest, including top pick A.J. Jenkins, never made a peep at wide receiver.
“He cannot afford to whiff two offseasons in a row,” wrote Cohn. “He needs a brilliant draft, a couple of savvy free-agent signings and one more thing – Baalke needs to figure out a way to sign (safety) Dashon Goldson to a multiyear contract.”
There, that’s not too much to ask, is it?
The 49ers won’t have a pick until the 31st choice of the first round, and there’s been much conjecture about what direction Baalke should go. Some predict wide receiver, because Jenkins fizzled. Others predict defensive line, to cut down on the wear and tear on Justin Smith and Ray McDonald and to cover for Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois, both of whom could leave in free agency.
NFC West blogger Mike Sando of ESPN, in his Combine preview Tuesday, suggests defensive line will be Baalke’s focus, and he’ll be looking at projected late-first-rounders who can make an impact, such as UCLA’s Datone Jones and Georgia’s John Jenkins.
Baalke goes into the Combine with the 49ers facing many questions: Do they put the franchise tag on Goldson a second straight year? Do they retain kicker David Akers? Is tight end Delanie Walker going to walk in free agency? Can Jenkins step up in 2013? Will Randy Moss return? Is it time to look for more help at corner?
How Baalke does in February, March and April will loom large from September through January. But the 49ers as an organization are confident Baalke will come through. He has before, and the team’s trip to the Super Bowl is a testament to that.
“(Baalke) means a lot,” said Goodwin recently. “He definitely has an eye for talent. He’s put some good pieces together. Definitely hats off to him. One thing you need, you have to be able to spot talent. And that’s something he has.”