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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.

Same goes for football. If your defense is "soft up the gut," you don't even have to worry about your perimeter defense. The opponent's offense will focus on gouging you up the middle. And it will gouge. Remember this adage: The most direct way to the opponent's goal line is between the tackles.

Baalke, an old-school football guy, a tough-guy football guy, believes in power up the middle. He has a right to believe in that. History supports his belief. And Baalke was true to his beliefs.

But was he correct when he adhered to those beliefs? This is where things get tricky. This is where we question core beliefs.

The one troubling thing about Baalke's performance is this. He had an abundance of picks, 11 to start with. Some of them are destined for the early-September waiver wires. Why didn't the Niners attempt to package some of those picks to elevate to a higher position and grab a blue-chip player in the first round?

Why didn't the Niners take a cornerback, a position of exceptional need? Darqueze Dennard went to Cincinnati at No. 24 in the first round. Baalke should have moved heaven and earth — or several picks — to get him. Or Baalke could have fought for cornerback Kyle Fuller, who went in the first round at No. 14 to the Bears. The Niners chose cornerbacks in later rounds, but it's not clear those picks matter.

I'm saying an elite corner would have been better than Jimmie Ward, a safety, even though Ward is a good player. Jim Harbaugh said Ward will "compete" to be the nickel back and will be an "understudy" at safety. That's a lot of hedging about his No. 1 pick. There is a reason other players were selected before Ward and he sat there at No. 30.

The Niners are not in need of numerous players to rebuild and restock like the Raiders. They must acquire and develop a couple of difference-makers. When you have been deep into the playoffs three consecutive years but are yet to win a Super Bowl, the issue is not how many players you can accumulate. The issue is the extreme, unique qualities of a player or two available in early rounds, a guy or guys who can get you the Lombardi Trophy. What good are 11 selections when several of them won't make the team?

For Patrick Willis, Gore, Justin Smith, Boldin, Crabtree, Vernon Davis, etc., it is not a matter of how much more they can do to win a Super Bowl.

It's a matter of who else the Niners can add right now to give the veterans maybe their last chance to win it all.

The Niners needed immediate difference-makers early in the draft to complement some of their aging players. Maybe the running back Hyde is a difference-maker. Maybe not.

The Niners sure needed an early-round cornerback to better defend against the pass and help the defense go three and out.

And although the trade for Johnson was creative and interesting, Johnson is not the speed receiver the 49ers need, not a run-past-the-defense wideout. He is a duplication of Boldin and Crabtree. More of the same. Odell Beckham went to the Giants No. 12 in the first round. You wonder if Baalke offered New York a package for him.

But, as I say, the 49ers had a philosophy, a reasonable philosophy, and they stuck to it. If they can make it work, more power to them. It's just that Harbaugh has reached a critical point in his 49ers career. Anything less than a Super Bowl appearance is not good enough.

(For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.)