SANTA CLARA, Calif. - As NFL front offices sit down in their war rooms and analyze the incoming batch of prospects, there's always one question that's at the front of the process.
Draft for need, or identify the best players available in each round?
Fans always find ways to generate their own ideas, normally based on glances at the comings and goings on the roster at the start of each league year. For the 49ers, they lost two starting cornerbacks (Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox), a few receivers (Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd), a running back (Frank Gore), two key inside linebackers (Patrick Willis, Chris Borland), and a very good left guard (Mike Iupati) this offseason.
So naturally, those positions weren't addressed in the early going of the draft, against many pre-draft prognostications (including here). Instead, general manager Trent Baalke found a defensive lineman, safety and outside linebacker with his first three selections, looking further into the future than 2015, to be sure.
"I think it was all about best player," Baalke said of his mindset before drafting 10 new players over the weekend. "When we went into the draft, we were looking at certain criteria that we felt we needed to do. We wanted to stay big. We wanted to get faster. We wanted to get as much football intellect as we could out of each position."
Stay big, Baalke did. Six of San Francisco's 10 picks were 6-foot-5 or taller, including first-round pick Arik Armstead. The 49ers also drafted one of the biggest players in the entire class when they took Florida offensive lineman Trenton Brown (6-8, 355) with one of their two seventh-round selections. Even Bradley Pinion, the punter they took in the fifth, measures in at 6'5".
It became clear, as the draft wore on, Baalke wasn't concerned about drafting for immediate 'need.' He didn't find a receiver until the fourth round in DeAndre Smelter, who tore an ACL in the fall and only has two years of college experience on his resume.
Baalke didn't draft a single corner, in part, because he took four last year, including Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser, who missed the entire season with injuries. First-round pick Jimmie Ward (a safety that plays nickel corner) and Dontae Johnson (fourth round) contributed to San Francisco's sixth-ranked passing defense in 2014.
Baalke said he came close to finding corners at various points of the draft, but ultimately stuck to his draft board. And he said he's content with that, because he's comfortable with the eight cornerbacks already on his roster.
"The board, it didn't fall that way. Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don't," Baalke said. "We're not going to reach for players. It's just something we don't do. But we do feel good, real good, about that group in that room right now."
The rub of this year's draft: the 49ers finished with the league's 25th-ranked scoring offense in 2014 and went the entire draft without finding any clear-cut contributors for 2015 on offense. The best bet to play an important role this coming season is fourth-round running back Mike Davis, who adds depth as another physical running back behind Carlos Hyde, and compliments change-of-pace backs Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter.
Beyond that? The offensive players Baalke found in this draft remain projects for his new coaching staff to develop. And that's interesting, because it says Baalke is confident in his current offensive personnel, despite the struggles of last season.
No, Baalke didn't find a rookie receiver that could challenge Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton or Jerome Simpson for third receiver duties, and possibly become a starter in 2016 when Anquan Boldin likely moves on.
No, Baalke didn't find an offensive lineman to push the unproven Brandon Thomas, second-year center Marcus Martin, or free-agent Erik Pears in the competition for the starting left guard spot, where Iupati left All-Pro shoes to fill.
No, Baalke didn't draft a quarterback to groom as a potential backup to Colin Kaepernick, that could become his successor down the road if Kaepernick doesn't improve in 2015, after the guarantees in his contract extension disappear.
Baalke found a tight end, Blake Bell, who has only played tight end for one season after playing quarterback three seasons at Oklahoma. It would be an upset if he unseated Vance McDonald - who has struggled as a pass catcher in his two seasons - as the team's No. 2 tight end.
The two offensive lineman he drafted came in the sixth and seventh round, Ian Silberman and Brown, and will be more worried about winning spots on the roster - or even the practice squad - this summer than nabbing Iupati's old starting job. Smelter, Baalke's only receiver taken, might end up missing the year to rehab his knee.
Immediate needs on offense went unaddressed through the draft, although Baalke did land receiver Torrey Smith in free agency. But replacing Boldin beyond the coming season looks like an increasingly difficult task after Baalke elected not to find a top-tier receiver in each of the last two seasons, when the group of prospects at the position was especially strong.
Looking back on this 2015 49ers draft will be particularly telling about Baalke's tenure as general manager. In the past, he found ways to address pressing needs right away. Whether it be along the offensive line in 2010 when he moved up for Anthony Davis and then drafted Iupati a few picks later, 2011 when he infused a much-needed pass rush to his defense with Aldon Smith, or even A.J. Jenkins in 2012.
Jenkins didn't work out, obviously, but there was a role to be had among the thin group of receivers when he was drafted. And in 2013, Baalke drafted Eric Reid after moving up in the first round, who became a starter as a rookie and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl after losing Dashon Goldson in free agency.
"This (year's draft board) might have laid out a little differently than some of the other boards have," Baalke said. "As I looked at it ... but there were some clear differences this year, where maybe at a need position there was a guy, but the guy we ended up taking was at least a round or maybe two rounds higher on the board. So we just stuck with the board."
It was a different draft for Baalke in that way - he didn't draft for pressing needs right away. Instead he found players he projects as contributors down the road, while they provide depth for injury in the short term.
And given there are players with very little experience on offense, Bell and Smelter, in particular, he's signalling faith in his new offensive coaching staff replacing Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman and their slew of assistants.
Put another way: Baalke's reluctance to add offensive talent that could contribute now says last year's struggles weren't reflective of talent, but the coaching staff.
How 2015 plays out will give us a clue.