With the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft and a dozen choices in their pocket, the 49ers have a chance to restock a roster that’s been decimated by injuries, retirements and free agency over the past two seasons.
But will general manager Trent Baalke be up to the task? Will the 49ers’ personnel guru be able to make the right choices to give new head coach Chip Kelly some young playmakers to help the team rebound from a 5-11 season?
Certainly, Baalke has had big draft classes in the past and made some excellent picks with his No. 1 selections. His first draft class in 2010 was outstanding, with offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in the first round and linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He followed that in 2011 with Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller. But his 2012 class was a flop. He struck out on No. 1 pick, wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, and his 2013 class – other than top pick safety Eric Reid – has had little impact.
His last two drafts, in 2014 and 2015 have produced some talent, but not enough to fill the gaps left by retirements and departures.
Baalke’s 2014 class was originally given an A grade by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr., but then downgraded to a B-plus after that season. Now, it looks even worse with two offensive linemen, Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas, failing to develop and receiver Bruce Ellington still trying to secure more playing time.
And, this week, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks gave the 49ers a C-plus grade for its 2015 draft class. Not a single player stepped up to make a huge difference in his first season – not No. 1 pick Arik Armstead, No. 2 pick Jaquiski Tartt or subsequent selections such as Eli Harold, Blake Bell or Mike Davis.
However, many of those players did contribute and could make strides in their second seasons, Brooks noted.
“Arik Armstead made tremendous strides as a rookie despite only logging one start,” wrote Brooks. “He could grow into a solid plugger along the interior. Jaquiski Tartt made contributions on the second level as a designated thumper between the hashes. The 49ers should be encouraged by the flashes displayed by Mike Davis and Blake Bell in spot duty – the young offensive playmakers should contribute as rotational guys going forward.”
But in this upcoming draft, Baalke needs to find more than just “pluggers” and “rotational guys.” He’ll need to find gems and instant stars.
Baalke’s 2016 draft class needs to be much more like the ones of 2010-2011 than the classes of 2012-2015.