Q:) So we understand you put his name in an envelope and kind of had it out there, and that was sort of the guy.
Baalke: “Weeks ago, no. Who let that out of the bag, coach? We did that this morning, played around a little bit, and his name was the one that we wrote down and sealed the envelope. Once again, just let the board speak.”
Q:) So that idea of putting his name in the envelope clearly means you like him. Does that also mean that you thought you liked him a little more than other teams might, that he would still be there?
Baalke: “You never know. We joked around last week and had a little fun with it, and I made the mention that we had a guy in mind. It could have been anybody, right? I could have picked anybody right now and said, ‘that was the guy.’ We had more than one person that we were excited about and you just line up the board, you go through that 365 day process to get to this day and you let the board speak and best player available. That’s where it was, he was the best player on the board at the time, we felt, and we had opportunities to trade back and chose not to because we had the player valued where we picked him.”
Q:) What made you more excited to draft him than some other wide receivers?
Baalke: “Well, we like the talent. He’s a gold helmet guy and he’s obviously had a very productive career at Illinois. He’s a guy that fits our system very well, from a trait standpoint, from a skills standpoint and has all the off-the-field intangibles that we’re looking for as well. Feel he’s going to be a great fit it in the locker room, a great addition to the offense, and now it’s up to him. It’s up to him to come in here and compete.”
Q:) Were you yanking our chain or did you really have one guy in mind last week?
Baalke: “I don’t know. That’s for you to decide.”
Q:) Was this a blink case for you, or the first time you saw him, something struck you about him that this guy can play for our football team?
Baalke: “Yeah, I think I mentioned that last week and I think any evaluator you talk to is going to have a pretty similar mindset. I mean, when you look at a player, especially a player that you’re going to take early, generally there’s something, something you see in them fairly early in the tape.
You don’t usually take first round guys that you got to watch 20 tapes of, or 20 games of, to decide he’s a first round player. Now we still do all the work. We watch all the film. We talk to all the people that we can possibly talk to. This is a process here, it really is. It’s about getting everybody involved. The more opinions you have, the more you stack them together, and what you’re doing is trying to connect the dots. What you worry about is when you cannot connect the dots, and with A.J. we were able to do that.”
Q:) Did you guys have him at 4.31 in the 40-yard dash?
Baalke: “Yeah, the card that reads 4.31. That’s what the card reads and really who cares. It’s what they play to. There are players – you go back to [WR] Jerry Rice. The talk is Jerry ran 4.56 some say, some say 4.58. Some people that timed him say he never made it in the 4.5’s, he was a 4-6 guy. All we know as 49er fans and everyone that played against him was he ran faster than anybody there. He ran as fast as he needed to. The thing that matters for us is how they play, do they play fast.”
Q:) Do you know which scout A.J. first came on radar for? Which scout saw him first?
Baalke: “Well, Ethan Waugh is the scout in that area. Ethan was in there early on. We go to all of our big schools three times, once during the training camp period, and then twice during the fall. He had three chances to look at him. Our college director also cross checked the school, Joel Patton, and then myself. That’s the fall, then you go through all the all-star games and he was in two all-star games. He was in the East/West, gave us a great chance to see him there. Had a great East/West performance and then was invited to the Senior Bowl. He went to the senior bowl on short notice and competed very well at the senior bowl. Went to the combine and did very well at the combine. So, A.J. is the type that responded to every challenge along the way and those are the types of guys we are looking for.”
Q:) Did you see him play against UCLA?
Baalke: “Did I see him live? I did not see him live. I was out of town when that game was being played. Tom Gamble actually went to that game and scouted him live there.”
Q:) When you say he fits your system, can you talk generally what does that mean, the specifics with that?
Baalke: “I think that’s probably a better question, Coach [Harbaugh] was just in here, that’s probably a better question for him. From my standpoint, from a personnel standpoint, you look at player and you look at where can he align. Some guys are strictly X’s, some guys can sit in the slot, some guys are strictly Z’s. We feel that this is a multi-aligned guy, a guy that can line up at any of those three spots and have success in our system. It creates a lot of versatility within the position group.”
Q:) I think there were about six trades before you guys as the draft went on, were you expecting that many?
Baalke: “I never go into it with any expectations, Cam. I really don’t because you don’t know. You can’t control anything that happens ahead of you or behind you. You don’t know who’s coming up. You don’t know who’s coming back. Had we decided to trade back, there’s a good chance that we would have lost him.
I’ve always believed this, when I used to work for Coach [Bill] Parcells and Dick Hailey, Dick’s mentality and Coach’s mentality, if you like a player take them. If you like them at 30, what’s the difference if you take him at 30 or 33 or 34. If you like the player, take them because if you don’t take them and you trade back, you may not like the outcome.
That was something last year with Aldon. Had we traded back, we would have lost Aldon. If we would have gone back two spots last year, we would have lost him. That sticks in your mind when you’re sitting in the chair that I sit in. If you like the player, take him.”
Q:) You mention Aldon, that was a surprise pick to a lot of people. This is a surprise pick to a lot of people. Is there some sort of sense that you guys find players that other people aren’t really talking about?
Baalke: “No, because I think if you follow this story a little longer and over the course of the next few days, you’re going to find that there were a lot more people that liked A.J. than just the San Francisco 49ers. He would have gone a lot sooner tomorrow than a lot of people may think. I’ll let you dig and find that information, but we’re very confident in the pick and very glad to have A.J. on board.
If it’s one thing I know about our football team, our locker room is full of competitive guys. So those receivers that are in that locker room aren’t going ‘ok, now which one of us is going to get cut.’ That’s not the mindset around here. The mindset around here is to compete. I’m very confident that we have the right group of people and players in that locker room and they’ll accept this challenge. There’s no guarantee that we won’t go into the season with six on the roster. Many teams do it. We’re going to keep the best 53 players regardless of position.”
Q:) A.J. was very excited in his conference call, overly excited. When you made that call, how does his excitement rank from all of the draft picks that you’ve informed that you were selecting them?
Baalke: “You love it when they’re excited. You hope they’re excited. You hope when you call them, they’re not, ‘oh do I have to come to San Francisco?’ He came out here; we had a great visit, obviously, with him. We liked the mindset that he has. We liked his team-first mentality, just how he carried himself. Just a class guy, a class act. Expect him to come in here, represent himself, represent this team, represent our community at a very high level.”
Q:) Did it take him a while to get to the phone? He said he was away from the phone, his sister was yelling at him, his cousin had been pranking him. He didn’t expect to go that high. Do you remember how many rings, or if it seemed like it took him a little while to get the call?
Baalke: “I don’t make the call. We have somebody make the call and then when he’s on the line I come to the phone, so I don’t know how long it took for him to answer the phone.”
Q:) Jim mentioned his speed, his big hands, fluidity in his routes. Any other details jump out to you from the film in terms of his skills?
Baalke: “Just a very accomplished route runner for a college [player]. His athleticism, the way he carries his speed into and out of his routes, the way he carries his speed through the catch. He’s a guy that’s very sure-handed, very good with the ball in his hand. We talked, if there’s an area where A.J.’s got to get better in, it’s called the weight room, and he will. He’s had some unfortunate situations that haven’t allowed him to fully attack the weight room in the offseason. Once he gets in there and figures out how to be a pro receiver, which we’re very confident we can help him along in that area, we feel we’ve got a very good player. A very good fit for this system.”
Q:) What happens tonight to get ready for tomorrow?
Baalke: “Well, really not a lot. To be honest, the board is set. We don’t tweak the board. We don’t move people up because now all of a sudden the board looks different. The board stays as is throughout the draft. And as you’re picking 30, what we’re finding and what we knew is, obviously, a lot of good players are coming off the board before it gets to us. It’s going to be no different tomorrow. There’s going to be a lot of names that we would love to add to this roster that are going to come off the board before we’re able to pick. But what we are confident in is the board. We’re very confident in that we feel like its set up right and that we’re going to get good players.”
Q:) Sorry, what were the unfortunate situations that kept A.J. out of the weight room in the offseason?
Baalke: “Well, I’m sure you can dig through the Illinois—like any player, there’s no off-the-field issues whatsoever with the player. Injuries are a part of the game. Minor deals here and there. He’s fine, he’s healthy, he’s ready to go and we’re very confident that once he gets here and [Head Strength and Conditioning Coach] Mark [Uyeyama] gets his hands on him, good things are going to happen.”
Q:) Is there a game that sticks out in your mind, in your memory, where he jumps out at you this past season?
Baalke: “Well, I think the Northwestern game was a big game for him. The Penn State game a year ago was a big game for him. Off the top of my head those are two games where we feel he played very well and was given a lot of opportunities to make plays. But he’s a guy who made plays his whole career when given those opportunities and feel once again, that his versatility in our system, his ability to multi-align and come from different areas of the field, is not only going to help our offense, but it’s going to help the receiving corps in general because a lot of our guys are very versatile. And it really allows us to attack defenses. And the coaching staff can certainly get more involved in that if you want more information. But, we just like the versatility. We liked the traits. We liked the character. There was not much that you didn’t like. There was a lot to like and that’s why he’s a 49er.”