49ers’ draft had a distinct NFC West influence.

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.

Advantage: Seahawks.

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 grantcohn@gmail.com.

This article has 76 Comments

  1. Dontae Johnson should be able to handle Graham, besides he’s soft. I doubt he holds up in this division….

    1. Was it Graham that Aldon got flagged on a hit over the middle, but Graham short armed a ball one or two plays later right into Aldon’s hands?

        1. Right. Memory is a funny thing, and the longer you use it the funnier it gets.


        2. Aaron Hernandez is going to be short arming the soap on a rope for the rest of his life.

    2. That’s exactly what I thought Razor.
      If the Niners want a CB to cover Graham, as Grant suggests, than they already have that guy in Dontae Johnson.

      6’2″. 200lbs. 4.45 40yd. 6.82 3-cone.

      Superb athlete.

    3. Great observations, spot on Grant…I’m just going to add Baalke’s vision of the complete football team…His vision is one that has Eight Tight ends (as they do now), several running backs, massive run blocking road graders w/o pass blocking skills, and pick up any 4th or 5th round or free agent wide receiver (because the only good pass is the one not thrown–it will only get you into trouble)….In Baalke’s vision, if a team could run the ball all game that would be the equivalent of a perfect game in baseball. If there’s 8,9,10 men in the box, no problem, I-smash is the answer. If you can bust it there would be no one back in the seconday–like hitting the lotto. Baalke began his coaching career at North Dakota State University. Being from Sacramento, CA, North Dakota St. and UC Davis, under Jim Sochor always battled for the D-11 crown, With NDS passing once or twice a game they relied on the run for a 14-0 record. Grant, Ask your father about those Coach Sochor, UCD teams. Jerry Rice’s best friend, WR Flemming played for Davis and the 49ers…..

  2. By the time Armstead is who they think he will be, Marshawn Lynch will have retired.

  3. I posted this in the previous thread but will pose the question here as well.

    Better prospect – Arik Armstead in 2015 draft or Stephon Tuitt in 2014 draft?

    1. “The Steelers have allowed just 84 rushing yards per game since Stephon Tuitt was placed into the starting lineup in Week 14.”

      Maybe we’ll know this time next year.

      1. Forget about how Tuitt has gone so far, I just mean if all you had to go on was college tape, who was the better prospect heading into the NFL? And why?

        1. I think he was rated as a better pass rusher than Arik, but the draft press was mixed from Top 15 to Second Round. My impression from what I read and watched I would’ve rated Tuitt higher, but system fit seems to have played a big part in SF’s thinking as they said 4Ts are a bit rare. Until these past few days 4T wasn’t part of my vocabulary.

          1. Tuitt primarily played DE in a 3-4 in college (5-tech/ 4-tech), just like Armstead, though unlike Armstead he was moved around a little. He lined up inside on passing downs, and displayed good pass rush moves. He’s 6’5″, 300+lbs with almost 35″ arms.

            To me it would be a no brainer if offered the choice between Armstead and Tuitt. I’d pick Tuitt every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Yet Tuitt went pick #46 last year – same spot the 49ers picked Tartt this year.

            Obviously last year was a more talented draft overall, so you can’t read too much into the different draft positions, but yikes did the Steelers get some good value there in my opinion.

            1. Ahhhh, but Trent didn’t have them to chose between this year, and didn’t recognize the need last year. He moved to find a successor to Cowboy with Carradine but didn’t know how soon he’d need to replace RayMac.

              1. That’s true, but it gives you some idea of the relative value of the pick, at least to me it does. Armstead may have been the best 5-tech (or 4-tech) 3-4 DE available this year, but to my eyes Tuitt was a superior prospect.

                I feel the same about Kawann Short, who I really liked in the 2013 draft and has played some good football for the Panthers (+18.2 overall grade according to PFF last season). He was taken at pick #44.

                From what I’ve seen of Armstead I find it hard to consider him a better prospect than either of those players coming out of college. They both displayed good run defense, ability to take on double teams, as well as the ability to be disruptive in the passing game.

              2. I liked Short also. It may be that Tuitt and Short were closer to their ceilings than Trent & Co. think Arik is. Trying to rationalize I guess. I got a little dyspeptic on Day#1; I wanted someone at 15 to be special. 17 much more challenge in this draft. I’d not have blinked at 25 on down, soooo shrug 17?
                I’m choking it down to move on.
                I’m not sure I agree with the prediction that he’ll be starting Week#1. Technique refinements, hand placements, and snap get-off timing need work. He’ll rotate in as the season progresses, and if all goes well might be capable of starting by season end.

    2. Scooter,

      Tuitt was a better prospect imo and of course he fell into the second round.

      I’m trying to find some positives in this, and the only one I keep coming back to is potential. He does have the physical gifts; now it’s all about Coaching him to become worthy of his draft status.

      1. Yeah. And to be honest I think if you were just basing it on potential rather than college production, Tuitt would still be a better prospect than Armstead. Tuitt is a very big boy, with long arms, very quick for his size, and very strong.

  4. I like the softened stance. It’s probably a very appropriate article. I don’t agree with everything I agree with the main points.

    For example I don’t think we need a cb to match up with graham. I think it really can be anyone from linebackers, safeties or cbs. If my memory serves me correctly weren’t we almost shadowing some of these mammoth te a few years ago with Willis in his Patrick’s beast mode days.

    We just don’t have that kind of presence anywhere behind our dl/olb.

    Whitner, goldson, Willis, bowman pre injury instilled fear in players. And could dominate many match ups.

    I think baalke hopes tart can be like that.

    I also agree with finding run stoppers later on. U can find McDonald type players throughout the draft. Especially if willing to train then for a couple years like they did with McDonald. Like they plan to do with arik.

  5. I don’t watch enough college football to comment on whether the 49ers should have picked player X instead of Arik Armstead or player Y instead of Jaquiski Tartt.
    The problems the Niners had against the NFC West teams was with their offense, not their defense. Holding opponents to an average of 18 points a game (against NFCW) is actually doing quite well, see below:

    2104 49ers

    @ARZ, PF: 14 PA: 23
    @STL, PF: 31 PA: 17
    vs STL, PF: 10 PA: 13
    vs SEA, PF: 3 PA: 19
    @SEA, PF: 6 PA: 19
    vs ARZ, PF: 20 PA: 17

    AVG against the NFC West
    PF: 14, PA: 18

    Yes, Graham will add another dimension to the Seahawk offense, and the loss of RayMac, Pat, Borland, Culliver, Skuta should not be underestimated. Yet, IMHO, the keys to the 2015 campaign are the health and play of the OL, and Kap’s performance.

  6. But what about the other side of the ball? 14, 10, 3 , 7 are our point totals in 4 losses to NFC west teams Cards, Rams, Seahawks and seahawks respectively. Opposing defenses would stack the box and dare our WR to make plays and they didn’t. We dont have a true #1 wr. Boldin is good, but can get shut down by double coverage.

    Baalke must know this , but what does he do – nothing. He observed the two best WR classes in a decade slip by and he made silly excuses. “I didn’t want to give up a 1,2, and 3 for Odell Beckman.” Ok, why not trade up one spot for Kelvin Benjamin? What about this year?

    If we had a true number 1 we would have won the super bowl 3 years ago and probably beat seattle two years ago in NFC championship game.

    We need a fast athlete who can catch the back should fade – who can catch a contested jump ball – who can beat a double team – who draws the attention of opposing D coordinators. We need a Dez/Julio/demaryius.

    Baalke gets a F in my book.

    1. Rollo,

      I agree completely. And, I like every Niner fan love it when our defense is stout and aggressive in forcing 3 and outs, but if we then have our boring ass offense go out and get maybe a 1st down or two before we punt again ourselves, it just isn’t very fun football to watch. To have missed out on a receiver again this year was inexcusable.
      I hope Smelter can become an exciting receiver for us in 2016 and beyond but I know Parker, DGB or Perriman would have right away. Baalke doesn’t want to play to win, he wants to play not to lose, and it’s a bland philosophy that leads to too many close games and too many losses. Baalke sucks.

    2. Baalke has a huge blind spot when it comes to drafting WRs (or an allergy), not sure which.
      It is incredibly frustrating to watch his steadfast refusal to draft a known highly rated wideout,

  7. Grant I like your “softened” tone and your recent columns. For awhile there everything you seemed to write was extremely negative toward the 49ers. Good analysis of the various situations and in particular this situation.

    On the surface it certainly appears that Baalke should have gone in the direction you indicated. Only time will tell if he is right, and only time will tell if this coaching staff will be able to produce a contender.

    1. I have a nagging suspicion that we will look at the bypassing of Peters as a very bad decision in a couple of years.

  8. I was hoping peters too, great back with toughness had issues but he’s a great defensive back ,will win rookie defense player of the year.

  9. Lol they haven’t even played a snap yet and you’ve proclaimed that never will amount to much or if they do it will be years down the road…pretty sure they are ALL unproven rookies at this point. Systems/coaches/better players around you/being able to focus on football 24/7 helps

  10. Was not trading up last year a good choice by Baalke? That will all depend now on wether Dontae Johnson, Kenneth Acker, Keith Reaser. If those guys can become play makers in the secondary, Baalke will have succeeded!

  11. Grant,

    Exactly. In fact, I’d call Baalke’s draft “Seattle-esque”. The ‘Hawks have never cared who they drafted where…always a few “unknowns” that have mostly turned out great. Baalke: Tartt. Some said Baalke took him a rd or two early…guess what, TB didn’t care and took him because he was the guy he wanted. I’m sure lot of eyes rolled when Baalke picked the P Pinion in the 5th. So what…he’s a big guy with a big leg…so why not. Pass rusher? Baalke plucked Harold in the 3rd…no problem. TE? Bell’s a huge target with excellent hands. RB? How ’bout an SEC battle tested Mike Davis. Then to finish off a booming 4th rd he takes the beastly WR Smelter. A couple of stout OL then another “hands” TE. Any player named Busta has to be good. I like it. Screw what these so-called “experts” think. Go with your gut.

    1. Enjoyed your post. But I wouldn’t say Baalke doesn’t care where he drafts a player. I think it’s just that his board sometimes differs from the consensus. He said every pick was BPA. However, he also intimated he used what I would call a band, that is, I think he broke down his board into bunches of maybe five players each, which if so makes sense because assigning players scores and ranking them in order isn’t a science. If I’m correct, this method also allowed him to draft for need but not over-reach. In doing so, he was able to reload for this season and next year’s. Here’s how I look at it:

      Armstead — immediate need — replaces MacDonald
      Tartt — immediate — replaces Dahl
      Harold — immediate — replaces Lemonier and, maybe, adds depth at ILB
      Bell — next year’s — replaces McDonald or Davis
      Davis — immediate — adds depth to Hyde’s role
      Smelter — next year’s — replaces Boldin
      Pinion — immediate — replaces Lee and improves kickoffs
      Silberman — next year’s — maintains depth at OG when Boone is gone
      Brown — next year’s — ditto and maybe replaces Pears
      Anderson — next year’s — maintains depth at TE

      1. Frank M,

        Seattle has gotten historically lucky (as in, never before seen in the NFL lucky) with fifth round picks in consecutive years. They are paper thin depth wise and been lucky to have been mostly healthy when it mattered most. Until the lost two defensive starters in the SB, and what happened? They lost, and they list because they didn’t have depth.

        Don’t misunderstand me, the Seahawks defense is great. Great until they lose ANY of their best defenders. Then they start to look ordinary. Remember when Wagner was out for a few games? They looked very beatable.

        I’ve said it a number of times, so what’s one more, if the seahawks ever had the losses the 49ers had on defense last year, their defense is crap. The difference is depth. The miners have it, the Seshawks don’t, and it’s going to catch up to them when the re-sign Wilson and Wagner, or sooner if have a season long injuries to key players.

        And much of their success is predicated on getting historically lucky in the fifth round in consecutive years. Two probable HOF players. Sorry, but finding one in the fifth round is incredibly lucky (before Chancellor, it had happened four times since 1974). The Seahawks did it two years in a row. LUCK.

        1. I think those blanketdy-blanks up in Seattle have done a good job with their roster and Cap. Its not all luck; they targeted Russell and held their breath to wait to take him and still under appreciated how good he’d be. Was Walsh JUST lucky with those couple of drafts where he killed it in the mid rounds? Wasn’t Charles Haley a 4th round ILB? Credit to the Seahags where its due.
          Now to your over-all point….yeah. Take Lynch off the field or RW and its a different team.

          1. BT,

            I know I sound like a bitter fan, but that’s only because I’m a bitter fan.

            I realize the Seahawks are good, that they have a good FO and have hit on some early round picks. Fair enough, but it’s really irritating to hear analysts speak if their late round drafting acumen as if it’s something that will repeat. It won’t. Some amount of luck is present in all things, that’s s given. They’ve used up all of the luck for the next couple of decades by hitting on Chancellor and Sherman in the fifth round, in consecutive years. And yes, this is my Niagra Falls (at least currently).

            1. Yeah Ex- Amen about their luck over-all. In the super bowl when that ball landed on that guy’s chest for that huge gain I thought – Dang! That Pike’s Market Voodoo done struck AGAIN!!

              1. BT,

                I forgot about that play. The ball bounced around like it was in a pachinko machine and landed right in Kearse’s (?) lap. That was sick making.

                I’d like to see that Pike’s Place Market voodoo reversed and have Sherman get blindsided by a flying Tuna…

  12. “At No. 17 a team should get an instant contributor, a future Pro Bowler. A star. ”

    I find it funny that the argument most used to criticize the pick is that at 17th you should get a great player. A star.

    If you consider that only 17% of first round picks become multiple pro bowlers, and almost 70% never become a pro bowler at all, demand that a pick HAS to be a star is pretty ridiculous.


    1. Especially in a draft thought to be 12 deep in first round ratings.

  13. Stopping the run in the NFC West will be crucial. Marshawn Lynch, Todd Gurley and Tre Mason. Even Andre Ellington can be tough at times.

  14. What rookie makes the biggest impact? I hope bell-dozer is a steal. Also I think TB makes on more legit move this offseason. A trade(12picks next year) or picking up a good release player

  15. There’s a term used in business and technology – “disruptive” – to describe an innovation that helps create a new paradigm. Baalke is a disruptive GM. He doesn’t have that kind of vision. He’s what I call a master of risk aversion. Minimize risk and save your arse Baalke. Way to go .. out the door in a couple of years.

  16. R.I.P. Marv Hubbard. One tough hombre.
    A life-long Chiefs fan I know was telling me that he and others in K.C. found themselves disappointed when Hubbard retired; it wasn’t quite as much fun to hate the RayDuhs without him to boo. They despised every single RayDuh, but they respected Hubbard.

  17. Yah, I will go with TB’s insight regarding NFL players over Grant’s any day.

    1. He’ll keep improving. I believe 2014 was the first year he did not devote time away from fooball for B-Ball….

    2. Positivity, rocket? We don’t need no stinkin’ positivity around here!

      Just kidding. I agree with you and do see that positive, even if positive isn’t kosher on this blog and bashing Trent Baalke is.

    3. Rocket alot of Armsteads improvement in late 14 was just him getting healthy. He had a serious high ankle sprain in 14 and played through it. If you want to see the real Armstead you have to watch his last 3 or 4 games.

  18. Armstead – I watched every game he played in. For the most part he played on a similar defense which the Niners employ. The difference is Oregon was usually leading by 21 points by the end of the first quarter. You play defense differently when your beating your opponent to a pulp. That’s Oregon ball, simple fact. The Niners don’t have that luxury of putting the points on the board at will. This means Armstead will be playing more aggressive and less prevent. We will see how this all works out. He may shine, he may bust, or he may be what Crabtree turned out to be – good but not worthy of the pick.


  19. Scooter, still no definitive answer regarding VMac as I posed the question to Maiocco:

    MattMaioccoCSN moderator1 minute ago
    @GreggisKhan We’ve got questions, and Maiocco has answers. Love it! What type of back surgery did VMac have, and what, if any chance it forces retirement?

    MM: As I understand it, it was a “minor” procedure. It was not something that kept him out of action too long. In fact, he was on the practice field last week when the media were allowed to watch the 49ers warm up before their third and final day of a voluntary minicamp. But I’ve been hearing for some time that it’s an issue to monitor.

    1. Going to be a heck of a position battle at TE.

      Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, Derek Carrier, Blake Bell, Garrett Celek, Busta Anderson, Asante Cleveland, Xavier Grimble.

      Some might stick because they can play multiple roles
      Blake Bell – TE, H-back, QB, 2 pt Belldozer specialist
      Derek Carrier – TE, H-back
      Busta Anderson – TE, Possession Receiver

      has roles that

        1. Thanks. Ideally Harold would gain a few lbs, but I’d hate to slow his explosiveness. It will be up to the coaches to determine his ideal weight and exact role.

          I’m greedy. In obvious pass situations I want Aldon, Lynch and Harold on the field at the same time. Perfect for zone blitzes. On other downs it will be nice to see Harold in a roving LB role. Taking on some ILB responsibilities.

          1. I think Matt M’s response to your question was spot on, Brodie. I don’t think they’ll look to bulk him up too much, maybe the mid 250 range. He’ll primarily play ROLB which is a pass rush specialist position.

    2. Well, at least they are covered at the position if is McDonald’s back is no good.

    3. I hope McDonald’s back holds up, but if they really want to see what he’s capable of, they need to target him more than 9 times in a season. That’s what has me scratching my head about him. He was selected because he was a receiving weapon, who had great size and speed and yet they never throw the ball to him. He has had some problems with drops, but you have to give the kid a chance to make an impact at some point and see if he’s up to the challenge.

      1. You also need your other TE to not step in front of him and knock down sure fire TD grabs…

        1. Rocket,

          Who was responsible for VMcD not getting more targets?

          One of a number of head scratching things with the offense recently.

          1. Roman and Harbaugh I would guess, and it doesn’t make any sense based on the receiving skills McDonald showed at Rice. There didn’t seem to be much margin for error when it came to him. He was completely ignored after the fumble in the Rams game and after the drop against Carolina last season, which Kuechly made a difference in. They have to give him a chance to be a factor if he’s healthy.

            1. You’ve asked me what I would’ve like to have seen Harbaugh change. I didn’t think of it at the time, but not throwing more to VMcD was one of the things (albeit, on the less significant side).

              Also, he should’ve insisted CK throw to his backs more. This criticism may not be fair, since I have no way of knowing what was happening in practice / meetings, but it sure didn’t look like there was a concerted effort to create easy throws for CK.

              Again, I like JH and appreciate what he did. I’m just saying he wasn’t perfect and I don’t think it’s completely crazy he was fired. I also think Jed York handled the Harbaugh firing like a tool, got suckered into being the villian by Harbaugh, who used the “Rope a Dope” on young Jed (remember, one of JH’s favorite books is “The Art of War”) .

  20. Peters > Armstead was my preference, specifically because Anderson was known to be an option in the 3rd. He’s just as big, strong and quick. Neither is an ideal 5-tech because they have <34 inch arms despite being 6'6 & 6'7. Armstead showed great athleticism, with a bright future, but Anderson is already a player. Oh yeah, we're also deep at DL.

    Peters has the potential to be a shut down corner, plus he has the size we covet.

    Taking Tartt at 2 was interesting, but maybe there' logic in it. I don't see it, but maybe he'll be a star in a year or two, assuming our defensive MVP or first round pick don't play in 2016.

    Pinion in 5 was silly. Wouldn't it make sense to take a flyer on a guy like Darren Waller, Dez Lewis or Ifo Ekpre-Olomu? He wasn't even a top-3 punter, none of which were drafted…

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