Many assumed the 49ers would take a quarterback with the No. 7 pick selection of the 2011 NFL Draft, but as it turned out, the team valued a defensive difference-maker more than a signal caller at that particular selection.
As we all know, the 49ers took pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith of Missouri rather than Blaine Gabbert, the Tigers quarterback of the past three seasons. Instead of tabbing Gabbert as the team’s newest signal caller, the 49ers had been targeting Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick all along.
General manager Trent Baalke revealed that insight into the 49ers draft strategy on Wednesday when speaking on Sirius NFL Radio’s “Sirius XM Blitz.”
“Our game plan all along was to do exactly what we did,” Baalke told XM Blitz hosts Rich Gannon and Adam Schein. “Either address the corner position or the pass rush position, whichever we felt we could get the most value from with the first pick and then circle back and pickup the quarterback.”
Baalke said the 49ers weren’t going to take a signal caller at No. 7, but felt he would have to address the position at some point in the second round or earlier.
“We were going to address the quarterback position if our board fell the way we were hoping it would,” he said.
So when Kaepernick remained available in the early picks of the second round, Baalke began to work the phones in order to find the right trade partner.
“When the time came, we tried to make a move up into a little bit higher than where we actually landed Colin,” Baalke detailed. “That didn’t work and so we worked down to a position where we finally had an opening and found a team willing to work with us and got the deal done.”
That partner would be the Denver Broncos, who accepted San Francisco’s No. 45, 108 and 141st overall selections in exchange for their No. 36 overall pick.
And now that the draft dust has settled, Baalke and his staff feel great about what was accomplished, the addition of 10 players who fit the mold of the organization.
“As you can see throughout the draft, one of the key ingredients we were looking for was the versatility of these players,” Baalke said.
With the top two choices, the 49ers added a chess piece for the defense’s front-seven defense as well as a mobile quarterback, who was the only player in NCAA history to throw for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 yards.
Besides flexibility, the 49ers found two passionate players who fit in with the hard-working personalities inside the locker room.
When asked about the challenges Smith will face in converting from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker, Baalke’s response was centered on Smith’s unique blend of athleticism and character.
“We felt Aldon had all the characteristics that we were looking for to become a very productive pass rusher at the NFL level,” Baalke said. “We loved his skill sets and we really liked the person, the intangible aspect, the way he carries himself on and off the field.
“The makeup, I guess, is what attracted us to him as much as anything.”
The general manager pointed to the lack of 3-4 schemes in the college game as a reason for so many teams having to take a leap of faith on turning defensive ends as pro linebackers. He cited several top outside linebackers in the league as player’s who came from “putting their hand in the dirt,” – a reference to the three-point stance used by defensive ends.
Baalke said it will be a process for Smith to learn all the functions of his position, most notably pass coverage, but Baalke felt comfortable that Smith’s pass-rushing skills make the selection worth it.
“As far as setting the edge and rushing the passer, which are the two most important aspects of playing that position, we feel very good that’s going to be a quick process for him to understand how we want him to do it,” Baalke said.
With a great deal of insight from the 49ers personnel and coaching staffs, Baalke sounded confident in the ability of each draftee to come in and learn quickly once teams are allowed to conduct offseason workouts once again.
“With every player,” Baalke began, “there’s an ability to get better and this staff I truly believe in. They’re going to do an excellent job of putting these players in position to be successful.”
Other notable items from the general manager’s interview included:
-Baalke’s explanation of what the team discussed before making the Smith selection. “We considered a lot of guys. It just came down to Aldon and the attributes he brings to the table, the versatility. Here’s a guy who played on his feet a little bit at the college level, did do it at times, but also played from the seven, down to the five, down to the three-technique. Just the range and the versatility that he showed at the college level is intriguing.”
-Baalke spoke highly of the variety of positions third-round pick Chris Culliver can play as well as the position flexibility that fifth-round pick Daniel Kilgore and seventh-round pick Michael Person provide. “They all are going to make a transition, but the more you can do, especially if you start out in this league as a backup player, the better chance you have of making the football team and being a productive player moving forward.”
-Kaepernick became the team’s targeted quarterback after Baalke and Harbaugh ran him through a private workout following Nevada’s pro day. Kaepernick was so impressive in responding to Harbaugh’s workout, the team didn’t need to bring him in as one of their allowed 30 pre-draft visits.
-Baalke “flirted” with moving back into the first round to take Kaepernick, but he didn’t find any trades worth pulling the trigger on. “To me, it’s all about value,” Baalke said. “I don’t mind losing a trade here and there but you certainly don’t want to get killed. No one enjoys getting whooped. We did find anyone who was a willing suitor so it brought a little tension along the way trying to make sure we could get into position. But everything works out for a reason and we’re certainly glad it worked out the way it did. We’re glad to have Colin on board.”
-When asked about the status of free agent quarterback Alex Smith, Baalke reiterated the team’s recent stance of wanting to make each position group as competitive as possible. “It’s well-known that Alex is welcome back here and we’d love to put him in the mix,” Baalke said. “That’s going to be up to him when the time comes to make that decision.”
-When asked about the status of the team’s current quarterback depth chart, Baalke said the team wasn’t done adding to the group. “How we do it – remains to be seen,” he said. “I’ve come out and said we’re going to get the best possible players, roll out the ball and let them compete.”
-Baalke’s plan for the rest of the offseason is to create competition throughout the roster once the league’s work stoppage is resolved and free agency is restored. “I know we’re going to continue to look at every avenue to make this as competitive of a roster at every position as we can – quarterback being no different.”
-Baalke said he’s keeping an ear to the rumblings on potential quarterbacks available, but isn’t allowing it to consume him. “You consume yourself with getting this team, this organization to the highest level that you can. That’s where we’re at from a mindset stage right now.”
-Lastly, Baalke was asked about his working relationship with Harbaugh to which he raved once again. “His ability to think outside the box, his passion for the game,” Baalke highlighted. “He’s always thinking, his mind is always churning. His looking for ways to get better and he’s not afraid of the challenges that go along with drafting a guy who may have to convert to a new position. He can see the value in doing that at times.”
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