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SANTA CLARA – The 49ers have been arguably the second-best team in the NFL in each of the past three seasons.
Clearly, the team’s roster strength and production rank among the NFL’s elite in recent seasons.
However, the 49ers are at the negative end of the spectrum when it comes to the organization’s off-field image.
“Does character matter?” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke asked. “It does.”
The 49ers own 11 draft picks and have spent a good portion of time – just as in years past – attempting to evaluate the character of each of the players on their draft board. Many of the team’s reported visits have been with draft-eligible players who had off-field issues in college and are considered character risks.
Ensuring the 49ers’ draft consists of well-rounded citizens seems to be particularly important this year, as the club has dealt with a troubling number of arrests, investigations and bad publicity that have overshadowed the many good off-field deeds of others.
“We’ve had very few off-the-field incidents over the last three, four years,” Baalke said. “(I) keep going back to the word disappointing. Are we disappointed we’ve had a string? Absolutely. Absolutely we are. At the same time, we’re very proud of the group in the locker room and what they stand for on and off the field. I have a lot of trust in them, almost as much as I have in my own family, my own children.”
Since 2012, four 49ers players have been named in at least five alcohol-related arrests. In addition to his two arrests for DUI, Aldon Smith faces three felony guns charges and was arrested this month for making a “false report of a bomb threat.” Chris Culliver recently pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor hit-and-run and felony possession of brass knuckles. Last offseason, Ahmad Brooks allegedly struck teammate Lamar Divens with a beer bottle but charges were not filed in the case.
When pressed about his statement the 49ers have had “very few” incidents, Baalke backed off and emphasized the organization holds itself to a higher standard.
“I don’t want anybody to leave here thinking we don’t care about the off-the-field situations that our players have put themselves into,” Baalke said. “I hope I’ve made that very clear.
“But when you’re dealing with the number of players we’re dealing with, OK, to say that ‘X’ amount of incidents, what is that number? One is too many. So if one is too many, then five or six is way too many. I hope everyone understands this isn’t something we take lightly.”
Said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, “Do you worry? Do you think about it a lot? Yes. Some are still to be resolved. The same things you tell your own kids. There are consequences for all of our actions, good or bad. There can be good consequences, bad consequences.”
Harbaugh staunchly defended 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was named in a Miami Police incident report after a woman stepped forward to claim she had no memory of how she arrived at the hospital following an evening that began at an apartment in which Kaepernick, 49ers receiver Quinton Patton and Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette were present.
Kaepernick has been accused of no crime and Miami Police, who have been silent on the subject for two weeks, initially stated there was no evidence of any crime.
“Looking at Colin Kaepernick’s situation, at some point there needs to be a resolution to some of jump-the-gun, witch-hunt kind of scenario that we’re seeing,” Harbaugh said.
“At some point there needs to be a resolution to this, this kind of scenario. I mean, the only victim in Colin’s case is Colin’s reputation.”
Baalke attacked the notion that the problems within the 49ers locker room are epidemic.
“Those are damn good guys that work awfully hard at being good people and good football players as well. Respect that,” Baalke said. “Respect the masses, because the masses are doing it right, and we’ll get the other things fixed.”
Just as evaluating a player’s ability to translate his skills into the NFL, attempting to predict any character issues is an inexact science. The 49ers were rewarded for the faith shown in such players as Tarell Brown, Josh Morgan and NaVorro Bowman, each of whom saw their draft stock fall due to off-field concerns.
“It’s a risk-reward business,” Baalke said. “And we try to take chances – calculated chances – and it has worked in a lot of cases. There are other times when the character of an individual coming into the NFL was sterling. But they end up being guys who get in trouble. It’s not always the guys that come into the league with a checkered past that leave the league with a checkered past.”