The Jacksonville Jaguars have a new general manager, the second part of a trifecta of additions the Jaguars are hoping will carry them into a bright future.
Jacksonville hired former San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke on Thursday, removing Baalke's interim label and officially giving him control of the team's front office. Baalke will now be tasked with helping new head coach Urban Meyer transition to the NFL, as well as helping the Jaguars find players that fit Meyer's vision.
“Trent Baalke has had success at virtually every level of football, notably so as a general manager who shrewdly and quickly built an NFL conference championship organization and team,” Jaguars Owner Shad Khan said.
“That experience inspired us to recruit Trent to Jacksonville a year ago to serve as our director of player personnel and is one of many reasons why we are naming Trent as the new general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Trent thoroughly knows the NFL and the dynamics of today’s game, has an exceptional eye for talent and I know will have excellent chemistry with Head Coach Urban Meyer as they begin their mission to bring a consistent winner to our fans in Jacksonville.”
So, what does the hiring of Baalke mean for the Jaguars and Meyer moving forward? We weigh in here.
There is logic to the Trent Baalke hire, but it should still be seen as underwhelming
When it comes to analyzing hires at the coaching and front office level, it usually pays off to try to look at the move from the team's perspective. Why did they think this was the right hire? What logic or line of thinking were they considering during the process?
In the case of the Jaguars and Trent Baalke, it isn't exactly hard to find Jacksonville's logic. Baalke has decades of experience in the NFL, has been a general manager before, and has worked with one other first-time NFL head coach who had just risen from the college ranks. Urban Meyer badly needed a general manager along his side who was well-versed in NFL rules and procedures, and he got that with Baalke.
Baalke has also been with the Jaguars for the past year as director of player personnel/interim general manager, so he knows the inner intricacies of the roster, how players fit with Meyer's vision, how they have developed in the past year, and more. Ultimately, his experience with the roster should help with Meyer's transition.
But that doesn't mean this is a hire that isn't worthy of criticism. In fact, there are likely more reasons to question the hiring of Baalke than otherwise. For one, the 49ers' roster was left in complete disarray once Baalke's tenure in their front office ended. He also recycled through numerous head coaches toward the end of his time in San Francisco, which is never a good sign in terms of chemistry between the front office and coaching staff.
This lack of chemistry was most evident with Jim Harbaugh, so the Jaguars should be cautious. Just because Baalke won't be running the show in Jacksonville doesn't mean his voice won't play a huge role. Harbaugh held considerable sway at one point, too, but that didn't end up mattering. The Jaguars will have to ensure that Meyer and Baalke's working relationship is fostered with care from the jump.
Regardless of the hire, no general manager was coming in without Urban Meyer signing off
While some may have the idea that Baalke was being forced upon Meyer since he is returning from last year's front office, that shouldn't exactly be the perception. At the end of the day, the Jaguars are Meyer's team. This was made obvious by Jaguars owner Shad Khan last week, and even more evident by the fact that Meyer took the job to begin with. He wasn't taking a job where he wasn't the team's leading voice, especially not in the NFL.
"My whole aspect—and this started really about 15 months ago—that we need to be a coach-centric team and organization, where the head coach really has to lead the kind of players he wants, the kind of team we need to be. And the general manager, myself, we have to support that mission. And somehow, someway, that had been lost," Khan said last Friday. "The idea here is really more about transparency, collaboration, teamwork and accountability. So I think this would lead to the natural question. I mean, I’ve talked to Urban about our general manager, who it ought to be and we’re working together on it. I hope we’ll have an announcement or something in the next week or so, but the objective is going to be that—and I’ve shared this with Urban, he’s on board—both of them will be reporting to me. But everybody in the organization, I mean, we’re going to be carrying out Urban’s vision of the team and the kind of players we want."
Essentially, Baalke wouldn't currently be Jacksonville's general manager if he didn't have Meyer's blessing. Meyer knows how important it is to align himself with people he trusts and is comfortable with, especially in his first NFL season. Anyone who knows anything about Meyer's mindset knows that he wouldn't simply take on a general manager without approving it first.
There are reasons to question the move, but Meyer's presence isn't one of them. Baalke will be working to support him and his vision, not the other way around.
Selling a new culture is tougher when you retain from a 1-15 team
When Meyer was hired, the initial thinking was the Jaguars would do an entire flushing of their football operations and build from the ground up. They can still do this, for what it is worth, but it is harder to sell it as a complete reset when you retain a high-ranking member of last year's 1-15 team. Meyer needs to bring a new culture and reshape the entire franchise, and returning any key members of last year's leadership doesn't exactly help in that regard.
Baalke, of course, wasn't general manager for the vast majority of last season, so players likely won't associate him too much with last season's failures. But he was still one of the highest-ranking members of last season's front office, and the question should likely be asked of whether he wasn't brought in as general manager last year if he was so qualified for the role.
In the end, Meyer will have his fingerprints on everything the Jaguars do. This means the coaching staff, front office, administrative staff, and much more will likely be overhauled. But the term "overhaul" becomes a bit less significant when the team keeps a leader from the 2020 Jaguars, which was the least successful team in franchise history in terms of wins and losses.
If this partnership goes well, it could look like the Seattle Seahawks. If not, it could end up like the 2020 Carolina Panthers and be reset
The comparison we have been using for Jacksonville's new hierarchy has been the Seattle Seahawks with Pete Carroll. Carroll dictates the terms of everything Seattle does and, like with the Jaguars/Meyer/Baalke, Seattle didn't hire general manager John Schneider until about a week after Carroll's hiring.
If Meyer and Baalke's partnership goes as Khan and the Jaguars hope it does, Seattle serves as a best-case scenario. Carroll and Schneider have become connected at the hip entirely over the past decade and their close working relationship has played a big role in the Seahawks' massive success during that span.
But what if the partnership doesn't go as planned? What if Meyer and the Jaguars enter next offseason with the feeling that they still haven't found their front office leader of the future? Well, there is a model for that too.
Last year, the Panthers hired a college coach for his first NFL head coaching role in Baylor's Matt Rhule. Rhule was paired with the incumbent general manager, Marty Hurney, to help him make the massive transition from the college game to the pro level. Everything in terms of administration, player acquisition, and overall day-to-day operations is different, so an experienced ear was needed.
But Hurney was fired after 2020 and the Panthers went on to fill the general manager role with Scott Fitterer. Rhule spent a year with Hurney to help him make the leap to the NFL, then the Panthers went and found the right partner for Rhule after he understood the job better.
Context is needed for Baalke's San Franciso tenure
You will hear and read a lot over the next few days about the success of Baalke's team in San Francisco, which is absolutely fair. Not many general managers have the type of accolades Baalke's team racked up, especially in the three-year run with Harbaugh. Three NFC Championship appearances and a Super Bowl appearance are things the Jaguars would do backflips over, after all.
But some context is also needed for how his tenure began and ended. For one, he ran the 49ers draft in 2010 following the firing of general manager Scot McCloughan. The 49ers had an excellent draft that season, picking players such as Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Anthony Dixon, and Kyle Williams, but there has always been some debate about how much of a role McCloughan's tenure played in those selections. Baalke did pick up other crucial pieces of the franchise's Super Bowl run in Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick in the next year's draft, though.
With that said, future drafts didn't go so well. Joe Looney was the only "hit" of the team's 2012 picks, while the 2013 draft saw Baalke and the 49ers take chances on several injured players, with no truly working out. Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner were fantastic picks in following years, but the 49ers roster was one of the most talented-depleted teams in the league when Baalke was fired due to years of hit-or-miss drafting. There is a reason the 49ers were at the bottom of the NFL when Kyle Shanahan took over.
Baalke deserves a lot of credit for building the 49ers roster that went to the Super Bowl. Even if the team's 2011 board was set, Baalke still had to pull the trigger and make the decisions. He then brought in key contributors as the years went on and gave the 49ers a chance at a potential franchise quarterback. His tenure ended in an opposite manner, though, and it is fair asking why that is.