Why does Baalke choose value traits so much?
In 2011, Trent Baalke, then with the San Francisco 49ers, took Aldon Smith at number seven in the NFL Draft. Although listed as a linebacker, he was primarily an edge defender, and the next one to go was J.J. Watt at number 11. Here is a snippet from Smith’s draft profile on NFL Media:
"Smith has steadily climbed his way into the first round."
That’s code for a player whose stock rose based on his NFL combine workouts. Meanwhile, hysterically, JJ Watt was perceived to be a try-hard guy:
"Watt will give you everything he’s got and is certainly a first-round selection."
One might think Baalke would view picking Smith over Watt as a mistake. After all, Watt is a potential Hall of Famer, and Aldon Smith didn’t amount to much after his off-field issues spun out of control ultimately getting him thrown out of the league. But, before his career took a nosedive, Smith looked like a tremendous pick. He had 14 sacks as a situational pass rusher in his rookie year and followed that up with 19.5 sacks in year two.
Smith’s undoing had nothing to do with his abilities as a football player. So, even though Watt was excelling as well, Baalke must have been looking at this decision as a good one. In the traits versus production debate, we’ll call this one a push.
In 2015, Baalke took defensive tackle Arik Armstead with pick number 17. Here’s what NFL had to say about Armstead:
"Projection-based prospect with elite size and the traits to become a dominant run-stuffing defensive end in an odd front. Armstead has the explosiveness off the snap and in his jarring punch to gain early advantages and control offensive linemen. Armstead is a fast riser but is still very raw. He will need patience and coaching and must become a more effective pass rusher at some point."
That’s definitely a traits pick (they even say it in the bio!). The very next defensive tackle taken in that draft was Jacksonville’s own Malcom Brown by the Patriots. Here’s a quote from his bio on Bleacher Report:
"Brown will not wow anyone with athletic testing, and he can be timid at the point of attack at times."
Hmm, that doesn’t sound like a great traits guy. In fairness, there were some questions raised about his overall college production, too. But, generally speaking, he was more production than traits. Fast forward to now, and Arik Armstead has 28.5 career sacks vs. Malcom Brown’s 13.5. We can’t know for sure if Baalke even had Brown as the next defensive tackle on his board. But, if we assume he was (be careful when assuming), then undoubtedly Baalke looks back on that decision as the correct one. Score one for traits.
In 2016, Baalke took DeForest Buckner over the next defensive end taken in that draft, Shaq Lawson. Buckner had production to show along with his traits for his senior year, but was generally seen as more of a traits guy:
"Headed into this season, Buckner was a traits prospect who flashed with quickness, strength and overall athleticism, but he put those traits together in 2015"
Meanwhile, Shaq Lawson was seen as more of a production guy:
"His average athleticism and pass rush skills will likely have teams viewing him as a 3-4 edge setter or a 4-3 base end… Weaknesses: Thickly bound with very average flexibility, Average athlete for an end position."
Deforest Buckner has 45 career sacks while Shaq Lawson only has 21.5. Traits win again.