Following 8 consecutive losing seasons beginning in 2003, the San Francisco 49ers emerged as a powerhouse in the NFL in 2011 and since then have gone on to appear in 3 straight NFC championship matches, and one Super Bowl. This post is a look at just how they achieved such a feat, the current state of their roster, and how the Redskins can attempt to follow suit to build a winner themselves.
Part One: The Front Office - Putting Personnel People in Personnel Positions
It is no secret to any informed football fan that the key to winning in football is to have a solid front office. That means excellent scouts at all levels and most importantly, a competent General Manager. Excellent talent evaluation and the ability to hit on draft picks is key to building a strong team. In my opinion, the bulk of the 49ers success of the previous 3 years can be primarily attributed to 2 men: Scot McCloughan and Trent Baalke.
Scot McCloughan entered the league in 1994 as a scout for the Green Bay Packers. In 1999, he was hired as Director of College Scouting by the Seattle Seahawks under then-head coach/GM Mike Holmgren, where he remained until he was hired by the 49ers as Vice President of Football Operations in 2005. During McCloughan's time with the Seahawks, they made the playoffs in 2003 and 2004, and made it to the Super Bowl in 2005.
Having been made VP of Football Operations by the 49ers, and later made GM in 2008, McCloughan was given control over the 49ers drafts and free agency moves for 4 years, before he left the team due to personal reasons in 2009.
In response to McCloughan's departure, the 49ers hired Trent Baalke as their new GM. Baalke had entered the league in 1998 as a scout for the NY Jets, before being hired as National Scout for the Redskins in 2001, and later promoted to College Scouting Coordinator in 2004. In 2005, Baalke was hired by the 49ers as Western Region Scout, where he worked for Scot McCloughan. In 2008, the 49ers promoted him to Director of Player Personnel, and following McCloughan's departure from the team, was given control over the 49ers draft beginning in 2009. He was promoted to VP of Player Personnel in 2010, and again to GM in 2011.
It is clear that Trent Baalke - having had worked with McCloughan for the previous 4 years and having a hand in the team's direction through his position - was a nearly seamless transition in personnel philosophy and chosen team identity.
Part 2: The Draft and UDFA - Building a Team Around Home-grown Talent
McCloughan and Baalke used their personnel background and a strong scouting department to their great advantage with the 49ers. Since 2005, the 49ers have made 78 picks in the NFL draft - an average of 8.6 picks per year. 29 of those picks were in the top 3 rounds, an average of 3.2 picks per year.
These numbers are above average, but it's not like the 49ers stockpiled their picks. Instead, they relied on solid drafting based on their scouting reports and focusing on positions that they deemed as being most important to success in the NFL. This strategy paid off - Of the 53 players on their roster, 36 of them were either drafted or signed as UDFAs by the 49ers.
Part 3: Position Prioritization - How McCloughan and Baalke Built the 49ers.
It is important to note the positions that were emphasized with those 29 picks in the top 3 rounds. The totals, listed by position and ordered by number of draft picks used in rounds 1-3:
OL : 6 draft picks (2nd 3rd 1st 2nd 1st 1st)
DL: 5 draft picks ( 3rd 1st 1st 2nd 3rd)
DB: 4 draft picks (3rd 2nd 3rd 1st)
WR: 4 draft picks (3rd 3rd 1st 1st)
LB: 3 draft picks (1st 1st 3rd)
RB: 3 draft picks (3rd 3rd 2nd)
QB: 2 draft picks (1st 2nd)
TE: 2 draft picks (1st 2nd)
Yeah, you read that right. The 49ers, with Scot McCloughan and Tony Baalke at the helm, spent SIX draft picks on Offensive Linemen in rounds 1-3 over the past 9 years. And of 12 first round draft picks, a whopping 7 of them went to the OL and Defensive front 7 alone.
It is often said about the 49ers (and their division rivals, the Seahawks) that they have a big, powerful team that is able to just "bully" smaller teams into submission. It is abundantly clear that this is not some fluke; The 49ers have been specifically built to do just that. Some would argue that spending multiple first and second round picks on OL is unnecessary and an unintelligent use of resources. The 49ers disagree.
That being said, it is also important to note that the 49ers used the #1 pick of the draft in 2005 to select a QB in Alex Smith, and it is obvious that the 49ers recognize QB as a position of great importance as well.
Part 4: Filling in the blanks - How the 49ers utilized Free Agency to complete the team
Here is a list of the 49ers primary contributors brought in from Free Agency. Several of the players listed here have been on the team for all 3 championship appearances:
C Jonathan Goodwin - 3 yr/10.9M, 4M guaranteed, 3.1M Cap hit
WR Anquan Boldin - 3 yr/25M 8M, Guaranteed, 6M Cap hit
WR Jonathan Baldwin - 4yr/7.5M, 6M Guaranteed, 1M Cap hit ------- 0.6M cap hit in 2014
DE Justin Smith - 3yr/16.7M, 6.5M Guaranteed, 3.7M Cap hit ------- 7M Cap hit in 2014
LB Ahmad Brooks - 6yr/40.4M, 8.5M Guaranteed, 5M Cap hit ------- 6.6M Cap hit in 2014
S Donte Whitner - 3yr/11.6M, 2.5M Guaranteed, 5M Cap hit
CB Carlos Rogers - 4yr/29.3M, 10.6M Guaranteed, 7.3M Cap hit ------- 8M Cap hit in 2014
NT Glenn Dorsey - 2yr/6M, 2.3M Guaranteed, 2.2M Cap hit ------ 3.8M Cap hit in 2014
K Phil Dawson - 1yr/2.4M, 1M Guaranteed, 2.4M cap hit
(Those players without a 2014 cap hit will be Free Agents this offseason)
Once again, the prioritization is clear - Even after spending all those picks on OL and DL, the 49ers still signed a C, DE, NT, and LB. They also signed 2 DBs (Hi, Carlos) and finally, acquired 2 WRs to line up alongside Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.
The plan the 49ers carried out was executed beautifully - First, they built a strong font office with men like McCloughan and Baalke at the helm. They used their draft picks wisely and focused heavily on their offensive and defensive lines in both the draft and free agency. And finally, they understood the importance of using "home-grown" drafted talent to establish their foundation rather than "store-bought" Free Agents.
This is one of many blueprints the Redskins can follow, but one of very few that lead to the kind of sustained success that the 49ers are currently enjoying. Hopefully we can see the Redskins moving toward this goal within the next couple of years.