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Baalke’s best argument: Blame Jim O’Neil, tout two 2016 draft picks

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There’s a strong chance Trent Baalke spends a heavy portion of Week 17 outlining specific reasons why he should remain the 49ers’ GM in 2017 and beyond.

And while he’s now publicly admitting his missteps, Baalke’s argument — however tiny it may be — has become clear.

DeForest Buckner looks like a slam dunk first-round pick, Rashard Robinson was an absolute steal in the fourth round and coordinator Jim O’Neil is the reason why San Francisco regressed on defense — not the players Baalke picked.

Listen, I’m not trying to convince you Baalke should stay or that this is a valid argument. I’ve called for his job in nearly a dozen columns throughout the season. Baalke has done irreparable harm to the roster and his two coaching hires after Jim Harbaugh have combined to go 7-24. Nearly every 49ers fan has champagne on ice, waiting for the announcement of his firing.

But we all know CEO Jed York is partial to Baalke, a former NFL Executive of the Year who had the 49ers playing in a Super Bowl earlier this decade. The Bills, Jaguars and Rams have already made firings because their ownership was fed up. Shockingly, that might not be the case down in Santa Clara.

So expect Baalke to hype up Buckner in his sit-down meeting with York — which he should. The case can be made the No. 7 overall pick was the 49ers’ best player on defense in 2016. His 71 tackles and 6 sacks are almost as impressive as Buckner leading all defensive linemen in snaps played. Buckner is a firm building block moving forward. That perhaps is the greatest success of this wasted season.

A fourth-round pick taken right before Dak Prescott, Robinson came in strong to start the year, tailed off some in the middle, then found himself making the game-sealing interception Saturday against the Rams. He has the skills to be a legitimate starter in the NFL. Coaches often say the hardest position for a rookie to learn in the NFL is cornerback. It’s a safe bet that Robinson will continue to improve.

Also, remember this: Baalke was briefly critical of the defensive coaching staff in a November interview with KNBR. The 49ers’ run defense is the worst in franchise history (2,567 yards allowed so far) and the unit also ranks 32nd in total defense — although it should be noted the defense has played a league-high 1,037 snaps, in large part due to Chip Kelly’s sluggish offense.

“We’ve tightened things down, inside the tight end, which has helped, and we needed to,” Baalke told KNBR prior to the Dolphins game.

Baalke will obviously argue O’Neil was in over his head and that the players he’s drafted aren’t nearly as bad as how they were schemed up. Although the 49ers ranked 29th in total defense in 2015, there was a ton of positivity surrounding the unit heading into the season. O’Neil had issues coaching Cleveland’s defense in 2015, too, furthering Baalke’s argument.

If York does somehow fall for Baalke’s persuasion, there’s a clear flawed logic attached to it. Two draft picks shouldn’t absolve the 20 others Baalke has screwed up throughout the years.

They say don’t judge an NFL Draft class until after three seasons. And if we look at Baalke’s 2014 class, only two of the 12 players are solid contributors: Carlos Hyde and Jimmie Ward — I’m not counting Aaron Lynch after his dreadful 2016. The 2013 class was a little more kind — Eric Reid, Vance McDonald and Quinton Dial. There are zero players left on the roster from the 2012 draft class; only Colin Kaepernick and Daniel Kilgore remain from the 2011 draft haul.

It’s going to be an uphill climb on a snowy Mount Everest for Baalke to keep his job. There are so many factors going against him, it’s hard to even keep track.

If York somehow does look past all of Baalke’s previous draft failures, he’ll appear completely tone deaf to a fan base begging for a change.

 

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