SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The messages around draft time are always controlled and contrived. Talent evaluators are careful to not tip their hands and let the world know which direction they're going to go when it comes to the draft process.
During his informal pre-draft discussion with the local media Friday, Baalke spoke in generalities, indicating he doesn't believe his roster has gaping holes with the draft less than two weeks out.
"We feel good about where the roster's at from a positional standpoint," Baalke said. "(I) thought we addressed some needs in free agency that will allow us to go into the draft with the ability to draft value over need. That doesn't mean we don't have any holes that we would like to fill, or that we're not looking to upgrade at certain positions. But it does mean we feel very comfortable with where we're at at this stage of the game."
Standard secretive Baalke speak - not willing to leave fingerprints on any one position of need. Throughout his 35-minute discussion with reporters, he gave his stamp of approval to his group of receivers, outside linebackers, cornerbacks and offensive linemen, among others.
Outsiders might say those are key positions of need for San Francisco, but Baalke wasn't willing to go there Friday. Any why should he? There's nothing to gain by letting the world know what you're thinking this time of year.
I asked Baalke about offensive lineman Brandon Thomas, who missed all of last season recovering from a pre-draft ACL tear. The 49ers took Thomas in the third round of last Spring's draft, after having a second-round grade on him before the injury. And now that former All-Pro left guard Mike Iupati left during free agency, there's an opening for Thomas to potentially earn a starting spot.
Thomas' emergence could mean the 49ers don't have to find an offensive lineman early in the draft, thwarting an argument made here. If the 49ers are going to contend an NFC West filled with imposing defensive fronts, they are going to need elite play from its offensive line, like it got from 2011 to 2013 when Iupati was at his peak.
"Well (Thomas) was drafted for this in mind. It’s obvious why we drafted him," Baalke said. "We were able to get him where we were because he was injured. We knew going into it was going to be a red-shirt year for him. He looks very good at this point. He’s come off the knee injury very well. He’s strong. He’s moving extremely well. He’s a very engaged guy. Very focused on what he needs to do and wants to do at this level. So we feel real good about him."
There's always inherent risk when it comes to relying on players a year removed from ACL tears. But Baalke appears confident Thomas' year of rehab and familiarizing himself with 49ers protocol will help as he works his way back to the field this offseason.
And with the departure of former reserve tackle Jonathan Martin, Thomas' role could be two-fold in 2015. The 49ers will need a back up "swing" tackle as insurance for either Joe Staley or Anthony Davis. Davis missed nine starts in 2014, forcing Martin to start, where he was consistently over matched at right tackle.
To Baalke, Thomas' versatility sets him up for that role.
"All you have to do is watch his game against (Jadeveon) Clowney a year ago, when they played each other and he played very well at left tackle against Clowney," Baalke said. "So, can he play tackle? … He’s proven in the SEC he can do it against the number one pick in last year’s draft. Would we feel comfortable putting him out there? Yeah."
Along with Thomas, the 49ers have second-year player Marcus Martin, who filled in at center for Daniel Kilgore last season after Kilgore sustained a lower-leg fracture midway through the regular season. Free agent lineman Erik Pears will also compete for Iupati's old job at left guard. Joe Looney, entering a contract year, will also vie for a roster spot.
Starting right guard Alex Boone is entering the final year of his contract, meaning the 49ers might have an opening to account for this time next season.
Does Baalke's apparent confidence in Thomas mean the 49ers won't be in the market for a starting guard come draft time? We won't know for two weeks.
It's all part of the message.