Fixing the 49ers’ front office served as a daunting, discouraging task the past decade.
Coaches and general managers came and went, as did eight straight seasons without a playoff berth.
But 2011 brought the union of general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh. Voila: The 49ers went 13-3, reclaimed the NFC West throne and reached the NFC Championship game.
“I really think now things have stabilized,” said John McVay, who helped shape the 49ers’ roster during their storied run to five Super Bowl titles.
What do Baalke and Harbaugh have in store for their encore in the draft room? The answer: Optimism, even if the 49ers aren’t slated to pick until 30th in Thursday night’s first round.
“Doing it the second time, I feel better at it,” Harbaugh said of the draft process.
And the 49ers feel they’re headed in a better direction. They’ve retained all their starters from last season’s dominant defense. Their only vacancy among offensive starters is at right guard.
“He has that magic touch,” McVay said of Baalke’s ability to identify good players. “He knows one when he sees one.”
One such as linebacker Aldon Smith, last year’s first-round pick who racked up 14 sacks and took second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
Baalke, meanwhile, won NFL Executive of the Year honors from Pro Football Weekly and the Pro Football Writers Association. He also landed a three-year contract extension Feb. 10 from 49ers CEO Jed York.
Aside from trumpeting Baalke’s moves over the past couple offseasons, York noted that Baalke has “a great coach to work with, (one who) knows how to put talent together and build talent from the bottom up.”
Baalke became personnel czar a month before the 2010 draft, when Scot McCloughan abruptly departed as general manager. Shortly after York officially bestowed the G.M. title on Baalke last year, Harbaugh arrived as coach, and the 49ers found the winning dynamic they’ve long sought.
“A couple of years ago, there was all of the turnover and nobody knew what was going to happen,” NFL Network personnel expert Mike Mayock said. “The 49ers ownership group stood tall and said: ‘Look, we like this guy (Baalke), and we are going to tie him at the hip with our new coach.”’
Unlike in 2005, when the 49ers drafted quarterback Alex Smith first overall, their roster doesn’t have many holes. Now they are drafting lowest among all teams that didn’t reach Super Bowl XLVI.
It’s a familiar price for success. From 1982 to 1999, the average 49ers first pick came at the 26th overall slot, whether they kept their original place or traded into another spot. They selected among the top 10 picks only twice: Bryant Young (seventh) in 1994 and J.J. Stokes (10th) in 1995.
“So many times, we were drafting in a similar spot at the end of the draft,” former coach George Seifert said. “Sometimes we did OK. Sometimes we didn’t.
“They’ll do a wonderful job with that. “¦ It’s wonderful to see the way the team came around this last year.”
Of the 150-odd candidates on the 49ers draft board, the ever-coy Baalke said the team’s ideal target will be there at No. 30. The 49ers have a pick in all seven rounds, and their greatest needs are at guard, wide receiver, safety, cornerback and defensive line.
History says Baalke is willing to deal up in the draft. A year ago, the 49ers moved up in the second round to draft quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Two years ago, the 49ers traded up to nab offensive tackle Anthony Davis at No. 11 in the first round.
“We involve as many people as we can in this process,” Baalke said. “It’s not one person doing the work. There’s a lot of people on the personnel side: Tom Gamble and the rest of the personnel department, and all the coaches.”
That combination has helped distance the 49ers from past chaos. Remember wondering who had the draft-room trigger among Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary and McCloughan? What about Terry Donahue’s ill-fated succession of Bill Walsh after the 2001 draft?
“In order to perform on the field,” McVay said, “you have to perform in the front office where you’re talking about the acquisition of players.
“Don’t kid yourself. You can’t win without good players.”