In his tenure as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Trent Baalke has been very good at drafting terrific defensive players.
Over the past five seasons, Baalke has drafted such standouts as Aldon Smith, Eric Reid, Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland.
Now, with the unexpected retirement of Borland at age 24, the pressure will be on Baalke like never before to produce in a very big way in the three-day NFL draft that is set to begin April 30.
The departure of Borland, who decided to retire because of concerns about the impact concussions could have on his long-term health, leaves a huge hole at inside linebacker. Borland was expected to start in 2015 after a terrific rookie season and the recent retirement of All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis. NaVorro Bowman, the other staring inside linebacker, still must prove he’s healthy enough to return to form after missing all of the 2014 season with torn knee ligaments.
The 49ers now go into this year’s draft with holes at inside linebacker, cornerback and the defensive line – where it’s possible that veteran Justin Smith may soon announce his retirement, too.
Baalke will also have to fill holes on the other side of the ball at left guard (after the departure of Mike Iupati in free agency), wide receiver and, possibly, running back, with Frank Gore signing with the Colts.
Last week, Baalke noted the recent departures of key players, saying, “We’re in a situation no different than other teams. Players move on, and when they do, others have to step up.”
But at this point, it’s Baalke, too, who must step up.
He’s already added some key pieces with defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, running back Reggie Bush and cornerback Shareece Wright. That’s a good start.
But Baalke can make the biggest impact in the draft, where he holds the 15th overall choice in the first round, then should have eight other picks over seven rounds (compensatory picks are still to be announced).
Given the 49ers needs at several spots now and with the unexpected loss of Willis and Borland, it’s possible that Baalke could move down a few spots in the first round to collect an extra pick. After all, Baalke has shown that he can find gems beyond the first round.
Last year, for instance, he found Borland in the third round and Lynch in the fifth.
Right now, the 49ers and their fans are reeling a bit after an 8-8 season, the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh, the loss of veterans such as Iupati, Ray McDonald and Chris Culliver and the unexpected retirements of Borland and Willis.
It’s now up to Baalke to make some impact plays in free agency and the draft to get the 49ers back on track.