You can't pigeonhole Trent Baalke.
Just two weeks ago, the 49ers' biggest draft needs were wide receiver, cornerback, running back and defensive line.
So what did the 49ers' general manager do?
He signed two wide receivers (Torrey Smith and Jerome Simpson), two cornerbacks (Shareece Wright and Chris Cook), two running backs (Reggie Bush and Jarryd Hayne) and a defensive lineman (Darnell Dockett). For those who felt the 49ers could stand to bulk up the offensive line, he threw in a guard who can play tackle (Erik Pears) for good measure.
For Baalke, the deals were done largely so the 49ers wouldn't telegraph their draft-day needs and thus allow another team to swoop in ahead of him.
"When you get pigeonholed like that, other teams can maneuver, if they need to, to get ahead of you," Baalke said last week. "So you’re always trying to get into that draft with the mindset that nobody can lock you in and say, ‘Boy, they've got to take this (position).' Or, 'They've got to take this position.’ You’re trying to get into it with the idea of we can go wherever we want to go and feel pretty good about it."
The statement underscores something that should have been drilled home to 49ers fans long before now -- that the draft is far more important to Baalke and his roster-management philosophy than free agency. If fact, Baalke is merely using free agency as a tool to set up the draft.
More in this vein: The 49ers have lost five free agents to other teams with at least one more, receiver Michael Crabtree, likely headed out the door. They have signed seven free agents, but only three of those -- Smith, Wright and Pears -- promise to count against the 49ers in the formula for compensatory draft picks in 2016.
Additions like Dockett and Bush, for example, don't count because they were cut by their former squad. All of which means the 49ers are likely to receive a bounty of compensatories in next year's draft, although the formula also takes into account playing time in the upcoming season.
Filling roster holes in free agency not only keeps opponents guessing as far as the draft, it also allows the 49ers to take the best player available.
San Francisco, for example, had no pressing need to take Carlos Hyde in the second round last season (remember, Kendall Hunter hadn't yet torn his ACL while LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore still were on the roster), linebacker Chris Borland in the third round or guard Brandon Thomas in the third round.
Given what's occurred in the last year, those now seem like prescient picks. Hyde becomes the de facto starter at tailback with the departures of Frank Gore, James and Lattimore; Borland likely will step into retired Patrick Willis' spot; Thomas at least will compete at the left guard spot vacated by Mike Iupati.
So what will the 49ers do in the draft now that Baalke has bellied up to the free-agent trough and masked his weaknesses? I still think they will take a wide receiver in the first of the second round. First, the value is there -- it's another deep draft at the position and an opportunity to stock up. Second, the team's best wide receiver, Anquan Boldin, is 34 and heading into the final year of his contract. Smith is a complementary receiver; the team still needs a long-term No. 1.
It's also notable that the team's top two receivers, Boldin and Smith, are well-known for being high-character players. (Both were nominated by their respective teams for the Walter Payton Man of the Year, which recognizes community service). You have to wonder if the 49ers feel that puts them in a better position to take a receiver with a sketchy background, say, for instance, Dorial Green-Beckham.
The team quickly closed the door on free-agent pass rusher Greg Hardy, who was recently part of a high-profile domestic violence case. That would seem to suggest they wouldn't consider Green-Beckham, who also allegedly was part of an ugly incident last year. Then again, Baalke said these matters are judged on a case-by-case basis. Some players (Simpson) pass the team's litmus test, some (Hardy) do not.
The 49ers met with Green-Beckham last month in Indianapolis.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.