SANTA CLARA — Let's start with a question. Actually it's THE KEY QUESTION for the 49ers:
Did they use the correct strategy in the now-concluded draft?
Before we answer the question — and, hey, doesn't this feel like the essay part of a midterm? — well, before we answer, it's essential to define the Niners' strategy. And, believe me, they had a strategy.
The 49ers identified obvious needs. You could make a list of those needs. The Niners sure did, and then they checked them off one at a time. Relentless. Systematic. Organized.
Here's what Trent Baalke needed and here's what he took.
He needed a defensive back to cover the slot. He needed one because the 49ers let aging, high-priced Carlos Rogers go — he's with the Raiders. So, with their first pick, the Niners took safety Jimmie Ward.
Understand the significance of the selection. Some GMs hand you a lot of baloney about drafting the best athlete available. Baalke went for need. He identified a need. Fulfilled the need. Check that box — slot defender.
Baalke needed a wide receiver because, really, he has only two reliable wide receivers — Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. So, he traded with Buffalo for possession receiver Stevie Johnson. Check the wide-receiver box.
He needed a running back. Badly. Frank Gore looked old at the end of last season. Kendall Hunter was hurt a lot, and when he played, was no big deal. LaMichael James is a jumbo prawn. Marcus Lattimore is rehabilitating a career-threatening knee injury and no one is saying he's actually ready to play.
Tremendous need at running back. With his second pick, Baalke took Carlos Hyde in the second round. Hyde is what football people call a "bruising runner." Not finesse. Bruising. Good pick.
Baalke needed someone who could play center and guard because center Jonathan Goodwin is gone. So, you guessed it, Baalke took lineman Marcus Martin in the third round. Check the box.
Baalke needed an inside linebacker because NaVorro Bowman is recovering from a serious injury. In the third round, he took Chris Borland. Check the ILB box.
Baalke likes to load up on offensive linemen, so with a supplemental pick after the third round, he took offensive guard Brandon Thomas. Thomas is injured and will not play next season. Call him a redshirt. This pick demonstrates a Baalke tendency. Loves to redshirt players. Last season, he redshirted Lattimore and defensive tackle Tank Carradine.
OK, let's stop after three rounds and the supplemental pick and the trade for Johnson. Round 4 and beyond are iffy, and I can make my case based on the first three rounds. And I swear I'm not being lazy. I hung in there at the Niners' media trailer all day on Saturday.
Baalke drafted for need. But he interpreted need in a specific way. He wanted up-the-middle players. You could draw a line from running back through the line of scrimmage and switch over to defense and draw a similar line — inside linebacker, safety. You get the idea. All these guys — except the receiver Johnson — are up-the-middle players.
To understand the point, think in baseball terms. A baseball team needs to be strong up the middle — catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second baseman, center fielder.