SANTA CLARA, Calif. - If you think you can figure out what direction the 49ers will go with their first pick in the upcoming draft, then you might be falling for one of Trent Baalke's tricks.
The notoriously secretive general manager, who asked the media in a press conference once, “Are we ever transparent in what we do?" is trying to hide his team's draft needs by plugging holes in free agency.
Or at least that's what the tricky Baalke is saying.
"If you can, you’re trying to build your roster leading into the draft where teams can’t pigeonhole you as to ‘you have to take this position,’" Baalke said. "Because when you get pigeonholed like that, other teams can maneuver, if they need to, to get ahead of you.
"So you’re always trying to get into that draft with the mindset that nobody can lock in and say ‘boy, they got to take this. Or they 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 49ers made a flurry of moves Saturday, addressing positions needing bodies. They lost corners Chris Culliver (Washington) and Perrish Cox (Tennessee) in free agency. But they signed former Chargers corner Shareece Wright and brought back Chris Cook, who looked good in training camp and the preseason before a hamstring tear midway through the schedule ended his season prematurely.
[Related: 49ers remaking group of corners, again]
And after losing Pro-Bowl left guard Mike Iupati to the Cardinals, signing a five-year, $40 million deal, Baalke is reportedly adding free agent lineman Erik Pears, who will be in the mix for the Iupati's old job.
Last week the 49ers signed Torrey Smith, who becomes the highest-paid wide receiver on the roster with his new five-year, $40 million contract. Additionally, they signed running back Reggie Bush after Frank Gore's departure for the Colts.
So do any of these moves mean the 49ers won't address corner, offensive line, wide receiver, or even running back with pick No. 15 on draft night?
Unlikely. It's all part of the facade.
"I’ve always said this is: when the value (of draft prospects) is similar, you’re going to go with the need," Baalke said. "When the value is not similar, if there’s a big fall off … there’s a guy that you have rated extremely high and the next guy is a tier down from that, two tiers down from that, you’re not going to go take that guy that’s two tiers below because you need that position. You may not need him right then and there. He might not have a spot day one. But through his career, he’s going to play at a much higher level."
If there's one thing to know about Baalke's draft style, he likes to use early picks on players that can have significant roles from the jump. It started when he began overseeing all player acquisitions, including the draft, in 2010.
With the exception of one, his first rounders have played a lot as rookies.
Pick 11: LT Anthony Davis (Started every game as a rookie)
Pick 17: LG Mike Iupati (Ditto)
Pick 7: OLB Aldon Smith (Played 51 percent of the team's snaps, registered 14 sacks. Finding a dominant pass rusher was key to the defense becoming one of the league's elite units over the next three seasons.)
Pick 30: WR A.J. Jenkins (Only played 37 snaps, had one target, made no regular season catches. The 49ers had a need at receiver heading into the draft and were forced to rely on 35-year-old Randy Moss as a starter late in the season after Mario Manningham sustained a torn ACL late in December. There weren't any receivers on the roster preventing Jenkins from playing more as a rookie. He never earned playing time, and is currently unemployed after the team traded him to Kansas City prior to his second season in the league.)
Pick 18: S Eric Reid (Started and earned a Pro-Bowl nomination as a rookie and appears to be a fixture on the back end of the defense for years to come. After losing Dashon Goldson, it was no secret Baalke was in the market for a safety. He traded up 13 spots with the Cowboys to get his man.)
Pick 30: DB Jimmie Ward (Like Smith, played in 51 percent of the team's snaps in nickel situations, only as a slot cornerback. But his second Jones fracture in his foot in two seasons [his first came leading up to the draft] cut his rookie year short after eight games. Entering the season, the 49ers had Culliver coming back from his knee injury, Tramaine Brock coming off his breakout season, with Cox and Cook signed to one-year deals.)
So Baalke says he won't be pigeonholed. But we won't truly know until draft night April 30.