This is my Tuesday column.
Look at it from Trent Baalke’s perspective.
The 49ers’ general manager has to build a team that plays in the NFC West — the toughest division in the NFL. Last season, the Niners’ record was 2-4 against NFC West teams. Against the rest of the NFL, the Niners’ record was 6-4.
They were pretty good, but they couldn’t compete in their own division so they missed the playoffs.
Baalke’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen again. His job is to construct a roster that can beat the Rams, the Cardinals and the Seahawks. And from Baalke’s perspective, he accomplished that with his top two draft picks this year.
With the 17th pick in Round 1, he drafted defensive end Arik Armstead, run-stuffer deluxe from the University of Oregon.
People like to say the NFL is a passing league, and for the most part it is. But the NFC West is a running division. If a team can’t stop Marshawn Lynch, fuhgettaboutit. That team has no chance to win the NFC West.
Armstead should give the Niners a better chance to stop Lynch, or at least slow him down.
But stopping Lynch isn’t everything. Seattle has another All-Pro player on offense — tight end Jimmy Graham. And if any safety from this draft can cover Graham, it’s the safety Baalke drafted in Round 2 — Jaquiski Tartt.
Tartt is an outstanding athlete. He is faster than Graham, and he’s big for a safety — 6’1’, 221 pounds. You can see the logic behind this pick.
You can see what Baalke is trying to do. He is a shrewd GM who talks to shrewd people.
With all due respect, this observer thinks he would have been better served drafting different players.
Armstead’s size (he’s 6’8”) and athleticism (he played basketball his first two years in college) may have enchanted and mesmerized Baalke and head coach Jim Tomsula. They probably looked at Armstead and envisioned a player they could develop to fulfill their fantasies.
And they may be right. He may become the player they he hope he can be. But it’s going to take him a year or two to get there, if he ever gets there. He’s a project. He started only six games in college before last season, and he has been a full-time football player for only about a year.
It’s fine to draft a project in Round 2, or even the end of Round 1. Somewhere around pick No. 32. But it’s a different thing to draft a project with the 17th pick.
At No. 17 a team should get an instant contributor, a future Pro Bowler. A star. Will Armstead be a star? Probably not. He’ll be more like Ray McDonald, at best — an essential member of the defense, a tough run defender, not a Pro Bowler.
Tartt might become a Pro Bowl safety someday. But will he ever hold his own against Graham or a Graham type?
Tartt should be able to cover traditional tight ends who line up on the line of scrimmage. But Graham is not a traditional tight end. He’s more like a wide receiver. He frequently lines up in the slot in passing situations, and sometimes he splits out wide when the offense is in the red zone.
Even the best safeties struggle to cover Graham when he lines up away from the line of scrimmage. A defense needs an exceptional corner to match up with Graham “in space.” And remember Tartt is a safety, not a corner.
Who on the Niners will cover Graham when he’s lined up at wide receiver and it’s first and goal and the Seahawks have the ball at the 49ers’ 5-yard line? Who gets to battle Graham for the jump ball in the back corner of the end zone?
Probably Niners’ No. 1 cornerback Tramaine Brock. He’s the best option. He’s 5-foot-9¾. Graham is 6-6¼. In the matchup with Graham, Brock is like a point guard trying grab a rebound over a power forward.
Only a big, skilled cornerback can stop Graham in that situation, someone like Marcus Peters — the Chiefs’ first-round pick. The Niners could have had Peters but they took Armstead, and the Chiefs took Peters exactly one pick later.
Peters is big — 6-foot — and in 34 games at the University of Washington he broke up 35 passes and intercepted 11. He has mastered man-to-man coverage. That’s the kind of player who can frustrate Graham. That’s who the 49ers probably should have drafted in Round 1.
They could gotten a run-stuffing defensive end later in the draft. Those players aren’t hard to find.
The Indianapolis Colts picked up former Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson in Round 3, and he was a first-team All-Pac-12 player last season. Armstead was just an Honorable Mention. Armstead probably is the inferior player right now, although he’s younger and has more potential than Anderson.
But that’s just one observer’s perspective. Baalke had a vision and he followed it. In time we’ll know if he saw straight.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.