Years of poor drafts set stage for 49ers struggles in 2016
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Fresh off his team's sixth straight loss, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aaron Lynch made a bold proclamation.
''We have the team. We possibly have one of the best teams in the NFL,'' Lynch said. ''Easily. Hands down.''
That might have been true just a few years ago when coach Jim Harbaugh had a roster filled with Pro Bowlers that helped San Francisco make three straight trips to the NFC title game and one Super Bowl appearance.
But years of poor drafting by general manager Trent Baalke, a string of expected and unexpected retirements and a few other defections have decimated the roster and are a main reason why San Francisco (1-6) heads into the bye week on its longest losing streak in eight years and little sign of hope under first-year coach Chip Kelly.
Whether it's at inside linebacker where players such as Nike Bellore, Gerald Hodges and Michael Wilhoite have been overmatched following NaVorro Bowman's season-ending injury, receiver where castoff Jeremy Kerley leads the team in receptions; or quarterback where neither Blaine Gabbert nor Colin Kaepernick seem capable of success, the talent drain in San Francisco has been stark.
Kelly still believes his staff has the pieces needed to contend in the NFC.
''That's on us,'' he said. ''Our job is to put our players in position to make plays and we're not doing a good enough job of that right now.''
While there are legitimate questions about whether Kelly's up-tempo spread offense that was so successful in college will translate to the NFL and whether he is able to put together a strong enough defense, the problems in San Francisco predate his arrival.
Harbaugh and Baalke struggled to work together despite the on-field success and owner Jed York picked Baalke in the power struggle.
Baalke had been a scout and director of player personnel under Scot McCloughan as the Niners put together many of the pieces of the team that would be one of the most talented in the league.
Baalke replaced McCloughan as the top front office executive shortly before the 2010 draft and came away with a load of talent led by Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and Bowman. Baalke did well the next year as well when he took All-Pro pass rusher Aldon Smith and Kaepernick with his first two picks.
The talent well went dry after that. Despite having 51 picks since 2012, Baalke has not added an impact player in any of those five drafts.
Top two picks in 2012, A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, barely played for the 49ers; 2013 first-round safety Eric Reid is a solid starter and second-round tight end Vance McDonald has contributed; running back Carlos Hyde, cornerback Jimmie Ward and Lynch are the only starters from the 2014 draft; and no one from the past two draft classes has shined yet.
Baalke's strategy of drafting injured players in hopes of finding value has backfired. Only two of the seven players he drafted the past four years coming off significant knee injuries have even played a game in the NFL this season.
One of those players is 49ers linebacker Tank Carradine, who did not play a snap last week despite being healthy and dressed.
The Niners have also been hurt by a string of early retirements, including Davis, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Baalke's drafting is hesitancy to take skill position players. Since missing badly with first and second-round picks on Jenkins and James, Baalke has had 15 picks in the first three rounds and used just one - Hyde - on a quarterback, receiver or running back.
That was glaring this year when the Niners didn't take a quarterback until selecting Jeff Driskel in the sixth round. Driskel was cut before the season, Gabbert and Kaepernick have predictably struggled.
Meanwhile, fourth-round pick Dak Prescott - taken one round after San Francisco selected injured cornerback Will Redmond and two picks after the Niners took cornerback Rashard Robinson - has Dallas off to a 5-1 start.
San Francisco also didn't take a receiver this year until Aaron Burbridge in the sixth round and have one of the least talented groups in the league and also chose not to take an inside linebacker, which has proved costly with Bowman out for the season with an ruptured Achilles tendon and the Niners on pace to allow the most yards rushing in a season since 1980.
That all adds up to a defense on pace to be the fourth in NFL history to allow at least 500 points in a season and an offense that ranks last in the league in yards per play (4.5).
''You don't go out there to lose and no one plans to lose,'' Reid said. ''It's frustrating. Any loss in general, it's been rough. We know what we have to do, we just haven't been doing it. That's the most frustrating part.''
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