49ers Mailbag: Baalke on hot seat

49ers Mailbag: Baalke on hot seat

Is Trent Baalke on the hot seat?‬ (Rob Turnage)
Do you think the ownership will trust Baalke with the 2017 draft picks with his track record?‬ (Blair Wilkins)
There is no question general manager Trent Baalke is on the hot seat. And there’s virtually nothing he can do at this stage in the season to strengthen the team for the final 11 games.

The biggest problem with how the team is constructed is that the 2016 49ers have the same weaknesses at the 2015 49ers. When last season ended, it was apparent the 49ers needed upgrades at quarterback, wide receiver and pass-rusher.

But the team did nothing of significance at quarterback, and their receiver position was weakened with the team opting to pass on re-signing Anquan Boldin.

And while the 49ers selected a defensive tackle in the first round of the draft for a second consecutive season, the team did nothing at the more impactful position of outside linebacker.

The only improvement from a year ago appears to be along the defensive line – but more performances like Thursday night and that point might be reconsidered, too.

With tons of salary cap room, the only veteran addition to the team came with the free-agent signing of guard Zane Beadles. Then, the 49ers traded back into the end of the first round to select guard Joshua Garnett, who found himself on the sideline for the first five games of the season.

That is not a good sign when the team has the same weaknesses year after year. The 49ers will not be an organization heading in the right direction until they add a quarterback around whom to build their roster.

The call belongs to CEO Jed York, but it’s obvious Baalke’s future with the 49ers is very much in jeopardy because he has regularly ignored the team’s weaknesses at impact positions.

New coaching staff yet same bad results when Tomsula was here. Did the 49ers really improve under Kelly?‬ (Isam Sabbah)
The 49ers were horrible last season under Jim Tomsula. The team is just as bad this season, thus far, under first-year coach Chip Kelly. The 49ers do not have the players to compete on a week-to-week basis. Regardless of who is the coach, the 49ers would be among the worst teams in the league. And that includes Jim Harbaugh, whose “mutual parting” with the 49ers was the best thing that could have happened for him.

The restructuring of Kap’s contract, is that to get him on the field or off the team?‬ (Stephen Burke)
Were the 49ers reluctant to play Kap because of his contract language? (Anthony Martinez)
The 49ers have proposed to Colin Kaepernick a new contract that eliminates the injury guarantee for next season. That’s what the 49ers want. The proposal would rip up the final four years of Kaepernick’s contract, making him a free agent at the end of this season. That is what Kaepernick wants. (But that also potentially helps the 49ers, too, because they would be in line for a compensatory draft pick.)

It is not a certainty that Kaepernick will opt to eliminate the injury guarantee that was negotiated into his contract when his $115 million contract extension was signed in June 2014. Kaepernick has no reason to forego the insurance policy, other than to guarantee he is in complete control of his future after this season.

So, to answer the first question. . . The proposal would enable the 49ers to get Kaepernick on the field immediately without any financial risks for the future. It would also enable Kaepernick to leave the team after this season and pick among his options.

So is Kaepernick’s contract keeping him off the field right now? I don’t believe so. Kelly stated Thursday night that Blaine Gabbert has been better in practices than Kaepernick. Kelly also said Baalke has never told him who should and should not play. The coaches, and the coaches alone, determine the depth chart.

So, perhaps, the 49ers’ front office is anticipating a switch from Gabbert to Colin Kaepernick and there’s now urgency to get this deal done before Kaepernick takes over and is subjected to the inherent risks of playing.

As the contract currently stands, if Kaepernick sustains an injury that lingers past April 1, the club would be on the hook to fully guarantee his scheduled $14.5 million base salary for the 2017 season.

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”

Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”