Just two years ago, many around the NFL viewed 49ers general manager Trent Baalke as one of the best in the league.
Baalke was instrumental in bringing in head coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011, and the Niners suddenly went on a roll, reaching the NFC Championship Game in three consecutive seasons with one trip to the Super Bowl. From 2011-2013, the 49ers were 36-11-1 in the regular season.
Before the 2014 season, The Sporting News’ annual ranking of NFL general managers made Baalke No. 7. Wrote David Steele in his evaluation: “Baalke is a huge part of the meteoric rise of the 49ers. … Baalke deserves his accolades. To take the talent left over from the previous regime, turn it into an instant Super Bowl contender (including a losing trip there in Year 2) and figure out a way to manage the risk of paying a young quarterback in Colin Kaepernick and a troubled defensive star in Aldon Smith – that takes skill.”
Over the past two seasons, however, Baalke has taken a beating. First, Harbaugh’s team went 8-8 in 2014 and the coach was forced out in a power struggled with Baalke and CEO Jed York. Then Jim Tomsula was elevated to head coach and quickly fired after a 5-11 season in 2015.
Smith was released because of off-the-field problems, Kaepernick regressed, numerous veterans retired or were allowed to walk in free agency and Baalke’s recent draft classes haven’t been as productive as some of his earlier crops.
Now, Baalke no longer is being spoken of as one of the NFL’s best GMs. This week, in fact, David Fucillo of SB Nation pointed out that Baalke was ranked 17th in one analysis of NFL GMs and 24th in another.
Steven Ruiz of USA Today ranks Baalke as No. 17, and points to his dealings with Kaepernick as Exhibit A. First the 49ers gave Kaepernick a big extension, then Baalke (so far) has failed to trade him.
“You can argue the front office had no choice but to give Kaepernick a big deal, but a trade would have netted San Francisco a nice package and saved the team a lot of cap space,” Ruiz wrote. “We need more creativity from NFL general managers.”
Patrick Daugherty of Rotoworld was even harsher, ranking Baalke 24th, noting that, “Baalke won his power struggle with Jim Harbaugh but has lost everything else the past two years.”
Daugherty points to Tomsula’s promotion as another big mistake and believes it’s a gamble to bring in Chip Kelly as his successor because their egos may clash. “The my-way-or-the-highway duo figures to have an exceedingly difficult time agreeing on a lane,” he wrote.
Added Daugherty: “To Baalke’s credit, his 2015 draft was solid and he hasn’t tried to compensate for his talent deficiencies by ‘winning’ free agency. It’s also true that many of Baalke’s losses weren’t his fault. It’s just that when you’re trying to rebuild your roster from the bottom up, you’re usually better off doing so with one of the best coaches of a generation. Failing to co-exist with Harbaugh is likely to end up Baalke’s football epitaph.”
With 12 picks for the upcoming draft and some salary-cap space flexibility, Baalke has the opportunity to turn bad reviews into good ones. And if Kelly’s hiring proves to be smart the 49ers – and Baalke – will be back on the ascent.
For now, however, it appears to be a very steep climb.