San Francisco 49ers  

 

Harbaugh, Baalke work hand-in-hand to address 49ers' needs

Kyle Terada / US Presswire
The relationship between new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh (left) and GM Trent Baalke is off to a good start.


San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh will head to the NFL Scouting Combine this week arguably more familiar with the more than 300 draft prospects than any of the NFL's 31 other coaches.

Coming from Stanford, where he led the Cardinal to a 12-1 record and Orange Bowl victory last season, Harbaugh coached and coached against a sizeable portion of the draft hopefuls. He also recruited a lot of them, the most beneficial part of his pre-NFL process, since he went into a lot of their homes and met their families and gathered a ton of background information. In as much, he doesn't have to solely rely on team scouts to bring him up to speed on some players.

"It's helpful in knowing guys, especially their backgrounds, how they're wired," Harbaugh said. "I don't know to what degree it helps, but it's helpful."

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Harbaugh's tempered reliance on his knowledge of the draft-eligible players has served him well in his first two months on the job. He hasn't tried to dominate personnel meetings or influence guys whose duty for the past few months, really years, has been to assess, cross-reference and gather insight on prospects for the 49ers.

Alienating scouts and player evaluators upon arrival -- even if you might not have plans to retain some of those guys -- is a quick way to ruin a team's draft process. And, as we know, if you draft poorly, you don't last long in the NFL.

The 49ers have the seventh overall pick and 10 selections total in the NFL Draft. They're in a great position to not only upgrade a fairly talented and young roster, but to also find players who will fit into this staff's system. To Harbaugh's credit, he's listened to general manager Trent Baalke and follows his lead. Baalke runs the draft and personnel meetings, directs the plan of attack, then solicits and listens to the thoughts of others.

"I feel like if I have something to say, I'll say it," Harbaugh said.

Pete Carroll, despite his extensive history in the NFL, took a similar approach last season when he joined the Seahawks from USC for his third NFL head-coaching gig. Even though he ended up being heavily involved in personnel decisions, Carroll relied on general manager John Schneider, especially when it came to pulling off trades. Their fusion allowed them to have a strong draft that provided building blocks in players like safety Earl Thomas and offensive tackle Russell Okung.

It can be a slippery slope for coaches coming to the NFL from the collegiate ranks. Typically, coaches who've been offered NFL jobs had immense authority over their football programs in college. Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino and Steve Spurrier are among the best in college, but life in the NFL didn't end up going too well for them. They are sometimes micro managers who have been able to recruit their types of players and coaches and keep things in line with the "I'll pull your scholarship" card. That doesn't work in the NFL.

Upon coming to the NFL, it's not uncommon for those types of coaches to issue edicts to GMs about finding certain types of players for the systems they run or the types of character guys they want in the building. Any new coach does that to varying degrees, but working with the guys who help find players and shape team policy has proven far more effective than one trying to be the other's boss.

In Harbaugh's case, he and Baalke and other staffers have met for countless hours already to discuss schemes, players that fit the system and things like that. Harbaugh said the relationship has been more of a meeting of the minds with all parties sharing and being receptive to ideas instead of dictating them.

It's a solid approach, especially for the leadership of this team -- including Baalke. This is his first full season going through this process as the 49ers general manager. He handled San Francisco's excellent draft last season, but only as a pinch hitter when then general manager Scot McCloughan was let go last March, just weeks before the draft.

Baalke has been in better position evaluate the 49ers' roster than Harbaugh has, which makes his opinion as valuable as Harbaugh's. Harbaugh and team staffers have been immersed in the film room evaluating players on the roster and draft picks, and the synchronicity of what's going on has been positive.

"I've learned so much, and I'm very impressed with our scouts, the job they do and the volume of work they've produced," Harbaugh said. "I'm not saying that's exclusive to the 49ers, but I'm really impressed."

What will be interesting as Harbaugh and the 49ers tackle the draft (and free agency if/when that begins after a new CBA is reached) is their approach to their quarterback situation. We know that inconsistency at quarterback is why San Francisco was one of the most disappointing teams last season.

Quarterback Alex Smith was the wild card entering the season, and he didn't get it done. Neither did his backup, Troy Smith. It didn't help that former coach Mike Singletary couldn't settle on one, which is a reason why Harbaugh is coaching the team now.

Harbaugh has been very positive about Alex Smith and said he looks forward to working with him, but that's a big if scenario. Smith is a free agent, and there are no guarantees he will re-sign with the 49ers. Troy Smith also is a free agent.

With that, Harbaugh wouldn't say whether the team is looking at drafting a quarterback and, if it is, how much of a priority it might be. Harbaugh said he didn't want to tip any of his team's strategies, which is quite commonplace and, for being the new guy, somewhat wise.

At the same time, the 49ers seemingly have to draft a quarterback, even if they plan to add one in free agency and/or try to re-sign Alex Smith.

The reliance on Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, has played a role in Singletary and Mike Nolan being fired in San Francisco. Sure, Smith has had a plethora of offensive coordinators and systems to learn, and it's really unclear how good he can be. But he hasn't blossomed like young guns Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco. Better yet, like Super Bowl winning quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was drafted 23 picks after Smith.

Not drafting a quarterback now, even though there's no consensus star in this year's group, seems unlikely for a team that needs a quarterback and has a coach that's got a pretty solid reputation for developing players at that position (Josh Johnson, Andrew Luck).

While playing it close in regards to his team's approach to the quarterback situation, what Harbaugh did give a glimpse into was the types of players he prefers, regardless of position. He seems intent to find guys who are highly competitive and smart, which is why the interview process will weigh heavily at the combine.

Harbaugh already knows a lot about some of these players, but how they respond now that football is a career, instead of as a means to get them to this point, could determine if they're the 49ers' type.

"I'm looking for how they're wired, competitively, as people," Harbaugh said. "I'm looking to see what they can grasp in terms of your schemes, intellectually. Physically, I want to see how much gas is in their tank and what their energy is like in drills. There's quite a number of things."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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