Two weeks before the draft, general manager Trent Baalke insisted his roster was full at every position and the 49ers would not draft for need. He made good on that stance when it came time to select.
If there’s a theme to his 2015 haul, it’s that few players fill immediate openings and many will take time to develop.
You can say that about first-round pick Arik Armstead, who was a two-sport player up until a year ago; about fourth-rounder Blake Bell, a former quarterback transitioning to tight end; and about fourth-round receiver DeAndre Smelter, who went to Georgia Tech to play baseball.
Baalke used a fifth-round pick on a punter even though there’s a perfectly good and perfectly healthy one already on the roster. Armstead plays along the defensive line, a group that head coach Jim Tomsula said a month before the draft was the deepest he’s ever seen it in San Francisco.
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The team’s three biggest needs entering the draft seemed to be cornerback, wide receiver and inside linebacker. The 49ers took no cornerbacks or inside linebackers, and one receiver, Smelter, who will sit out at least the first half of the season with an ACL tear.
Both Baalke and Tomsula implied that there were cornerbacks the team liked in the draft but that they simply weren’t available when the 49ers picked. Baalke also noted that the team took three cornerbacks – Dante Johnson, Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser – a year ago.
“We’re high on the three guys we took in last year’s draft,” he said. “We tried to address (cornerback) at multiple times during this draft. The board – it didn’t fall that way. Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don’t. We’re not going to reach. We’re not going to reach for players. It’s just something we don’t do. But we do feel good, real good, about that group in that room right now.”
Another theme, of course, is size. Armstead, safety Jaquiski Tartt, Smelter, punter Bradley Pinion and offensive lineman Trent Brown were either the biggest player at their position or had attributes – Smelter's massive, 11-inch hands, for instance – that made them stand out in terms of size. Brown was the biggest player at the scouting combine.
There also were no character risks. The 2015 draft was teeming with red-flagged prospects – from receiver Dorial Green-Beckham to pass rusher Randy Gregory – but the 49ers appeared to take upstanding players.
Like most teams, the 49ers apparently decided Green-Beckham was too big a risk to take in the first round. Would they have taken him in the second?
The Titans took the big receiver – Green-Beckham certainly has the size the 49ers like – at pick No. 40, six slots ahead of San Francisco.
Along those lines, this is what Baalke said about third-round pick Eli Harold, a pass rusher:
“We really liked the person. He is a tremendous young man. He’s a pro’s pro. He takes the game very seriously. He works at it. He’s tirelessly working at his craft. Everybody we spoke to about Eli said nothing but positive things. And that is going back to his high school coach and everybody that’s worked with him at the University of Virginia. We really felt good about him as a person and then you put on the tape and the guy’s had 15, 15.5 sacks the last two years. He went up against Miami this past year and (New York Giants first-round pick, offensive tackle Ereck) Flowers on that team and performed quite well. I think he had two sacks against him.”
Fact check: Harold had no sacks against Miami this past season. In fact, Harold had no sacks against Miami in each of the three times he faced the Hurricanes.
Baalke said Pinion will have to beat out incumbent Andy Lee for the punting job. The way I look at it: Lee, the longest-tenured player on the squad, will have to be well ahead of Pinion to keep his job.
Pinion’s selection has everything to do with the salary cap. Lee, one of the top punters in the league over the last decade, is due to earn more than $2 million this season, and that cost only goes up in the three seasons to follow. He’s scheduled to have a base salary of more than $4 million in 2018.
A fifth-round pick like Pinion will average about half a million dollars in upcoming seasons. Why did the 49ers draft a punter? Follow the money.
Baalke now has selected seven players in the first round since he started running the draft in 2010. Six of them have made pre-draft visits with the 49ers. In addition to Armstead, second-round pick Tartt and fourth-round pick Mike Davis also visited the team last month.
Baalke picked up two additional picks in next year’s draft, a fifth-rounder that belonged to the Chargers and a sixth-rounder from the Cowboys. He also could gain as many as three compensatory picks based on the free agents the 49ers lost this offseason. That means – counting on fingers – the 49ers could go into next year’s draft with 12 selections.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at sacbee.com/sf49ers.