Revisiting the 49ers draft room and a couple under-the-radar personnel who played key roles. Plus reader questions on how the Browns fared, the Bears’ trade for Mitch Trubisky and the Patriots’ unconventional strategy
When I wrote about the 49ers’ draft this week after being embedded with the team in the draft room, I wrote a lot about the rookies atop the San Francisco organizational structure—GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan. And rightfully so. They’re the ones, collectively, pulling the trigger on the picks and the formation of this roster. But when you spend significant time with people making crucial decisions for a franchise’s long-term future, you see how important others in the organization are.
Martin Mayhew, senior personnel executive, was one of those with a role you won’t hear much about. He’s sort of a shadow GM, after having the experience with Detroit, and Lynch sought his counsel quietly during the draft eight or 10 times that I saw. He was one of the four front-office guys who called other teams to inquire about trades, and who put trade possibilities out on the floor for the group to consider. Since the Niners made six trades, this quartet of people was important. Mayhew is important, too, because he’s the only guy in the room who’s been a GM, and he can tell Lynch where the trapdoors are—with no ego.
The other two I wanted to mention were vice president of player personnel Adam Peters, imported from Denver by Lynch to run the personnel side of the building, and Paraag Marathe, a 17-year veteran of the organization. Marathe does the cap, and he’s chief strategy officer and executive vice president of football operations. Peters and Marathe were highly impressive, and, like Mayhew, operated in ego-less and subservient roles fitting in well with Lynch and Shanahan.
I wanted to follow up on the Niners story with a couple of things that I originally was going to include in the piece but didn’t. With a 5,100-word story on the 49ers and another 5,000 words covering the rest of the draft, I thought asking people to read a novella was one thing, but a novella plus 1,500 more words … well, I figured, let’s save a bit for Wednesday.
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I’ve done this job for 33 years, and I’ve seen collaborations in quite a few front offices. In this case, I was really interested to see how Marathe (pronounced “mur-RAH-tay”) fit. In San Francisco and elsewhere around the league, the word on the street was that Marathe’s power had been neutered late in the Jim Harbaugh Era and in 2016, during the failed Chip Kelly season. Marathe lost any power that he once had, the word was, and had simply become a cap guy, without much contribution to the football product other than contract negotiating.
So witnessing his role in this draft was a surprise. Marathe was every bit a peer of Shanahan and Lynch all weekend. He sat next to CEO Jed York (who was next to Shanahan and Lynch, in that order, in the front of the draft room) and ran the trade possibilities. Which, for a team that traded six times in a seven-round draft, were plentiful. Lynch and Shanahan were dial-up on the league-wide draft-trade value chart, which is to be expected for rookies. Marathe was Google. At one point late Friday, in round three, Shanahan said to him: “I want another pick in the top 10 of the fourth round.” Right away, Marathe said, “For the sixth pick to 10th pick [in the fourth], we can do it for our 143 and 146. Earlier in the round, it’s close.” The Niners held pick 143 (late in the fourth) and 146 (atop the fifth). But Marathe didn’t even have to look at the draft-trade value chart. He just blurted it out. He just knew.
When I wrote about the mayhem in the last 80 seconds of the 31st draft slot, from the time Marathe and Seattle GM John Schneider agreed on the deal that saw the Niners acquire the pick to the time the Niners picked Reuben Foster, it was hectic on the phone (notifying the league of the trade) and then getting in the pick during the allotted time. Not saying the deal wouldn’t have gotten done with another negotiator, but I can tell you Marathe moved fast and tamped down the enthusiasm in the room so business could be done till it was official, with 19 seconds on the clock.
The Marathe I saw was not a marginal player. He was a peer. Not in terms of telling Lynch or Shanahan what to do about anything football, but in advising and quickly formulating plans in a changing draft environment pick-by-pick. I was really impressed with him.
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Peters had the staff of scouts organized for the undrafted free-agent portion of the weekend. Immediately after the Niners’ last pick of the draft, the 229th overall, Peters had the regional scouts calling players they hoped would go undrafted. There was one player midway through the last round who was top on their list: tight end Cole Hikutini from Louisville, a player who made sense for the 49ers because Shanahan wanted a “move” tight end, a player with enough speed to separate from linebackers in coverage. The 49ers drafted more of a blocking tight end, George Kittle, earlier, and now they want to pursue Hikutini if he didn’t get picked. Peters felt he was the best candidate to fill that role—as did Shanahan. What was keeping him down was a 4.8-second 40-yard-dash time, but Peters told the coaches that happened because he was hurt. When healthy, Peters said, Hikutini would be a separator. That’s what the head coach demanded.
As the round went on and Hikutini remained undrafted, the plan was solidified: tight end coach Jon Embree would pitch Hikutini on the merits of signing with the 49ers. Peters would debrief agent Camron Hahn and pitch Hahn on the Niners. As the draft ended and Hikutini was still free, the recruitment began seriously.
Over two hours, Peters estimated, Embree called Hikutini five times. Shanahan—competing with Sean Payton of the Saints at the end—called him twice. Lynch called him once. Peters sent several texts, and more to Hahn as the derby went on. Something else helped quite a bit: the money. Each NFL team has $98,000 to spend on undrafted college free agents. That’s not much, so the 49ers (through Marathe and director of football administration and analytics Brian Hampton) use an approach that several teams use too: They guarantee some money from a player’s prospective salary in his rookie year (either on the practice squad or 53-man roster), figuring that it’s likely that such a highly regarded player as the top undrafted free agent on the board would at least make the team’s practice squad.
And so the final offer to Hikutuni netted him: $10,000 signing bonus, plus $100,000 guaranteed from his Paragraph 5 (his regular-season salary) “Paraag and Brian Hampton put together a model which I think gives us an advantage, in using part of Paragraph 5 to add to the guarantee,” Peters said. “Opportunity to make a roster is crucial. But ultimately the money is going to sway a lot of guys. It gives us a chance to be competitive with a lot of players. I think with Cole, we won him over with our situation and our control.”
It was a good draft weekend for the 49ers. And one of the key things they found out is they’ve got a group of front-office players who work well together. Around the 49ers, it hasn’t always been that way.
Now for your email:
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NEW ENGLAND DRAFT
The Patriots traded all their original picks to land the below listed players. The chances of their board producing a lot of busts is less than every other team in the league.
1. WR Brandin Cooks
2. EDGE Kony Ealy
3a. EDGE Derek Rivers
3b. OT Antonio Garcia
4a. DE Deatrich Wise
4b. TE Dwayne Allen
5a. RB Mike Gillislee
5b. TE James O'Shaughnessy
6a. OT Conor McDermott
6b. TE Mike Williams
The goal of the draft is replenish your roster with needed talent. Using draft picks in trade for veterans accomplishes same with a much lower chance of acquiring a stiff. In retrospect, shouldn't Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio be named GMs of the Week?
Perhaps. I agree with your analysis, and I have no issue with what the Patriots did. But I think it’s a tough thing to talk about what a great draft this was, what a deep draft it was, one of the best drafts especially on defense that we’ve seen in years … and then to see the Patriots not make a pick in the top 80. We’ll see. I love the Cooks acquisition, and Ealy was really good in 2015, and Allen is a Belichick kind of player, and Gillislee looks like a steal. I guess I just would have wanted to pick from a golden crop of players earlier than 82.
THE TRADE FOR TRUBISKY
Being a lifelong Bears fan I too was shocked to see them pull the bold move to get Mitchell Trubisky. We as fans are not used to them doing anything but the safe route. Once I got over my shock I am happy. We just might have a good quarterback that didn't cost us a ton. I think the media was so shocked that they had no clue Ryan Pace was thinking Trubisky and they are slamming him and the Bears organization. Think about what KC and Houston gave up for their quarterbacks. We paid a fairly small price compared to them.
Thanks for your email, Renae. I guess I would look at it like this: Ryan Pace worked three months finalizing his draft board and scouted the quarterback position hard and figured Trubisky is the best guy to give his team a chance to solidify the most important position in the spot. And we got him by giving up three draft choices, none of which were in the top 60. And if he wasn’t positive Trubisky would still be there with the third pick, then I have no problem with using three picks to ensure getting your man.
ON JOE WILLIAMS
Does it not seem deficient by the 49ers scouting staff that it was left to the GM on the third day of the draft to talk to Williams and find out the back story about his past? The kid has almost indisputable talent, and teams take character risks year after year after year. How could the scouting staff not have asked about it?
—Greg, Calgary, Alberta
The scouting staff knew all about him, and running backs coach Bobby Turner shared video of him with Shanahan and they watched a lot of it together. It’s just that the majority decision was made by the scouts that Williams was too pockmarked to take. And then Shanahan brought it up with Lynch, and in order for Lynch to get comfortable with the Williams, he felt he had to have a personal conversation with Williams. Which he did. Would Lynch have preferred to let Williams go? I think he would have. But he knew how passionate his head coach and running backs coach were about Williams, and so he changed his mind.
AN ALL-TIME GREAT BROWNS DRAFT?
I appreciate that truly rating a draft takes three to four years, but all a team can do each year is the best they can, based upon their then-current player ratings. Using what we know now, is it fair to say the Browns had not just a good draft, but an all-time great draft? The Browns obtained the following: (1) the best player in the draft; (2) the most players with a first round grade; (3) the most talented collection of picks and, (4) the most draft capital for 2018, in Houston’s first two picks, plus Philadelphia’s second round pick. Teams can do well to get one of these important items, but to get all four? That has to be unprecedented. I know the Browns’ draft is receiving high marks from everyone, but isn’t it actually being underrated?
I go back to your first sentence: “I appreciate that truly rating a draft takes three to four years… .” I am just not into grading drafts when they’re 10 minutes old. Google “NFL draft grades 2013” and find out how some of the colossal busts from an awful class of high first-round players ended up playing in the NFL. I do think the Browns have done a great job in collecting draft capital for 2018, with five picks in the first two rounds, though.
TEARS FOR TEDDY
A dedicated reader of yours here: As a Vikings fan/masochist, thank you for poignantly acknowledging the Vikings are ostensibly not going to pick up Teddy Bridgewater's 5th-year option. There are (too) many Vikings “fans” who didn’t like Teddy as our QB, but I firmly believe he was progressing well, has winning moxie, has great character, and is telegenic—the face of a franchise, only not to be. I’ve never cried over a Vikings game in 42 years as a fan, yet admittedly shed a few when I read about Teddy’s probably career-ending injury at the end of August. (See: Robert Edwards.) Sure, I had a few PBRs in me—btw, the master brewer of Allagash White, Jason Perkins, lives down the street—but I’m not too proud to admit Teddy’s cruel fate made this grown man cry. And this is no knock on Sam Bradford, who, like Mike Zimmer said, clearly earned the starting QB job—whilst getting killed behind our woefully injured O-line with no running game. Wishing the best for Teddy.
—Kris K., North Yarmouth, Maine
Well said, Kris. He is truly a nice man and incredibly hard worker. I wish the same as you.
DALVIN COOK STORY
Thanks for the fine and balanced story. It is truly a shame what these kids have to surmount. The average American has no idea of the conditions and environment the athletes must attempt to rise beyond. Hopefully the cautionary story of Easterling will enable Cook (and others) to keep their noses pointed in the right direction.
I will pass along the praise to Robert Klemko, author of the story. He did a marvelous job of sifting through what was real and what wasn’t.
GOODELL SHOULD BE BOOED
Been reading you for years and am a huge fan. Your most recent column digging into the 49ers draft, from inside the room, is exactly what I love about your writing and is the sort of story that's kept me reading your work for so long. I've never written in before (not to any columnist), but I had to break my streak to take issue with your comments about how it's not good for the "league, or the 32 owners," to see Goodell being mercilessly booed every year at the draft. Forgive me, but who cares? Goodell is garbage. I watch the draft every year expressly to hear him being lustily booed and I happily boo him from my couch. He's the worst commissioner in my lifetime by far. He is a person without a moral compass—more like a wind sock. Fans are a revenue source for the league, nothing more and nothing less. Roger can take his nauseatingly high annual salary and stand on stage being booed like a big boy. That is why they're paying him the big bucks.
—Kacey B, Severna Park, Md.
Got it. My point is it’s not good for the league, and why does the NFL keep putting him out there to get the crap booed out of him? I don’t think it’s good business.
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