With the first draft of the Jim Harbaugh-Trent Baalke era less than one week away, it’s becoming clearer what they’re looking to accomplish when the 49ers are on the clock a league-high 12 times at the 2011 NFL Draft.
It’s all about creating competition.
In speaking with media last week, both the 49ers head coach and general manager filled reporters in on a few of their draft philosophies. They didn’t give away all their secrets, however, the two offered quality insight at this time of the year.
“We’re obviously excited to have 12 picks leading into the draft,” Baalke said. “The general philosophy has not changed. We want the best possible players we can get.”
When it comes to deciding on draft picks, Baalke knows there’s always going to be discussions on selecting the best player on the board versus drafting for a specific need. When such debates take place, Baalke keeps the same principles.
“When things are equal, you go with need,” he explained. “If there’s a slight difference, you might lean towards need. But when there’s a big difference between the values of two players, you’re going to take the best player available.”
The 49ers are confident they know who the best players are within each position group, now it’s a matter of comparing the value of various positions. Baalke explained it as the team needing to finalize its horizontal draft board.
Vertically, the board is set. Baalke’s staff has arranged the best players at each position and remain confident with those rankings. The horizontal draft board allows the team to evaluate players at different positions versus each other.
Harbaugh has taken a role in the evaluation process as well in his first year as a NFL head coach. His expertise is rare, having coached in the Pac-10 over the past four seasons in addition to playing 14 seasons in the NFL as a quarterback.
The quarterback evaluations allow Harbaugh to lend a vast amount of his knowledge. As a former successful starter in the NFL himself, Harbaugh knows what it takes to succeed.
He said it requires the right DNA to be a great quarterback. The system or scheme that a player comes from doesn’t matter as much to the head coach.
“They have it or they don’t,” Harbaugh said. “Sometimes the only way you find that out is their ability to figure things out.”
Nobody knows who the 49ers will select in the draft, but choosing a quarterback seems to be a likely scenario with one of the team’s 12 selections. The 49ers only have one signal caller under contract currently and Baalke said the plan is to bring three-to-four quarterbacks in to compete for the starting spot.
“Our job is to make this team as competitive as we can,” he said. “The only we can do that is create competition at every position and quarterback is a position we need to create a competition at as are others.”
When it comes to drafting a quarterback, there’s always a debate whether spread quarterbacks can transition to pro-style offenses. In making those determinations, Harbaugh’s DNA criteria will be factored in if and when the 49ers decide to take a quarterback.
“If you have the DNA to be a quarterback, you have the ability to figure things out,” said Harbaugh, the 26th pick of the 1987 NFL Draft.
Harbaugh’s been through the process himself. He had to wait behind three other quarterbacks to eventually be selected by the Chicago Bears.
But just because Harbaugh has knowledge of a good portion of the draft prospects and has played quarterback in the NFL doesn’t mean he’s the final authority in determining successful quarterbacks.
Harbaugh implied that it’s an inexact science.
“I don’t think there’s any one way to know if a guy is going to be a Pro Bowl quarterback or even a starting quarterback,” he said. “There’s a lot of factors. I’m not professing to having all the answers. You do the best you can.”
The 49ers will try to improve their roster with a dozen draft picks, at least one in each round. And just as important as it is to find difference-makers early in the draft, Baalke and his staff always look to discover gems in the late rounds.
It will be important once again with the team making six of its 12 picks in the sixth and seventh rounds.
“As we saw last year, we can get good players in the later rounds,” Baalke pointed out. “We got three players that contributed quite a bit as rookies and a fourth one that we feel pretty good about that happened to get injured.”
The 49ers feel confident with all their draft preparation. This Thursday starts the culmination of a lot of hard work. But in going through a rigorous process, Baalke said it’s been enjoyable to go through it with Harbaugh.
“He loves the game of football at every level,” Baalke said. “He’s a worker and he’s a grinder. It’s a good fit like we talked about from day one. It’s been exactly what we expected.”
Now it’s just a matter of finding out the results of their hard work.