Over the next week and a half leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh’s story will be told a nauseating amount of times. And frankly, it should be. The turnaround he has engineered in two short years to restore a once-proud franchise to all its glory has been nothing short of miraculous.
But in all the Harbowl buzz, it’s easy to overlook the puppeteer behind the scenes: Niners general manager Trent Baalke.
Baalke, along with director of player personnel Tom Gamble, has morphed a flawed roster that had some talent into a balanced, deep, athletic and versatile group.
Building through the draft is vital to success in every sport. Take a look at the Giants with Tim Lincecum, Buster Posey and Matt Cain or the Warriors with Stephen Curry, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson. But it’s hardly an exact science. It’s often like doubling-down at the blackjack table — you can hit it big or go broke in the blink of an eye.
For every sure-fire stud such as Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck at the top of a draft, there are sinkholes such as Tim Couch, Akili Smith or Ryan Leaf waiting to derail a franchise for years.
In his short tenure, Baalke has avoided those pitfalls and shown a mastery of talent evaluation.
While not officially the GM for the 2010 draft, Baalke was the man pulling the trigger. He knew the Niners were weak along the offensive line and proceeded to add tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati in the first round.
Three years later, the pair are part of arguably the most physical offensive line in football. Pro Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman was added in the third round of that same draft.
The following year, Baalke selected linebacker Aldon Smith in the first round and traded up for QB Colin Kaepernick in the second round. Both were deemed a “reach” by some pundits at the time, but have proven to be anything but as the Niners now feature one of the game’s most dynamic pass rushers and a franchise quarterback to build around for the next decade.
And it’s not just at the top of the draft where Baalke has struck gold. He’s scored with late-round selections such as running back Kendall Hunter, cornerback Chris Culliver and fullback Bruce Miller the past couple years.
While the 2012 draft hasn’t offered much yet, running back LaMichael James being the exception, it’s far too soon for a full evaluation.
Baalke constructed this 49ers squad with a vision for the future. He avoided the temptation to take high-profile skill position players in the beginning, electing to build from the inside out.
Arguably the three most important building blocks of an NFL team are a quality quarterback, a punishing offensive line and a ferocious pass rush. Check, check, check.
So while Harbaugh, his assistants and the players on the field will justifiably receive the lion’s share of the attention building up to the Feb. 3 Super Bowl, don’t forget the man behind the curtain.
Dylan Kruse is the sports editor of The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @dkruse16.