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A lot of the principles 49ers general manager Trent Baalke applies to his evaluations of players was formed when he worked as a scout for two seasons in the late-1990s for Bill Parcells’ New York Jets.
Parcells’ believed all his players had to meet certain size standards, depending on the position. In addition, players at certain spots had to run speeds he believed would allow them to compete against NFL-caliber players.
And Parcells further believed if a personnel department started making exceptions in player acquisitions, pretty soon that organization would field a team full of exceptions.
So any time a player did not fit a certain profile, there had to be a darn good reason to still go ahead and employ him.
And that’s where Chris Borland comes in.
Borland is 5 foot 11. He has 29 1/4-inch arms. His time in the 40-yard dash was 4.78. His vertical leap was 31 inches. In short, he would not stand a chance on Parcells’ draft board.
In fact, Baalke and Parcells spoke extensively about Borland around draft time, Baalke told CSNBayArea.com.
“Bill and I were talking about the draft, prior to the draft, and talking about different players,” Baalke said. “He coached Dat Nguyen at Dallas. And when he first got there, for Bill, he was an exception.
"Coach liked his team to look a certain way by position. There were certain traits and characteristics that he wanted to see. So when he got to Dallas and Dat Nguyen was there, he didn’t fit that profile.”
Nguyen was also 5-11. But he had already been in the NFL for four seasons as a productive player by the time Parcells arrived in 2003 as Cowboys coach.
“At first, he probably wasn’t his type of guy,” Baalke said. “But as he got into the season and watched him play and saw how productive he was, Dat was an exception Bill was willing to make.”
Baalke spoke to Parcells about Borland – a player both men acknowledged was not tall enough, did not have long enough arms and was not fast enough to warrant much consideration as an NFL draft pick.
But in Baalke’s scouting of Borland, he ultimately became convinced Borland was worth an exception. He compared him to Nguyen and Zach Thomas, the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker of the Miami Dolphins.
“You put on the film and they’re always around the ball, making plays,” Baalke said. “And he (Borland) is making plays in different ways: slipping blocks, playing off of blocks, beating blocks instinctually. And he’s just one of those guys who was able to do it and do it at a high level in a very good conference, the Big-Ten.”
Baalke had to work through any hesitancy there might be in selecting Borland, based on his conversations with Parcells.
“We talked about that principle,” Baalke said. “Is this a guy you’re willing to make an exception on? And if so, why? And the reason you make exceptions is because they’re productive players at their position. They’ve proven they can overcome the limitations or liabilities that they have physically.
“So it was a good conversation and he put it all in perspective. We had a lot of discussions internally with respect to him. Could he play at the same level in the NFL, overcoming the limitations he has physically? And at the end of the day, our belief was that he could. And he’s proven through the first few games as a starter that he’s more than capable of doing that at a high level.”
[RELATED: Borland studied Willis, Bowman in college]
The 49ers already had seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis and All-Pro NaVorro Bowman under contract for multiple seasons, but that did not matter. The 49ers selected Borland, an All-America and Big-Ten Defensive Player of the Year, in the third round with the No. 77 overall draft pick.
After taking over for Willis, who opted for season-ending toe surgery, Borland has been outstanding. Borland has recorded 18, 17 and 12 tackles in the past three games. He showed extraordinary quickness and determination in recovering a fumble against the New Orleans Saints that led directly to the winning field goal in overtime.
On Sunday, Borland demonstrated his instincts when he jumped a route in front of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham to intercept Eli Manning’s pass. He later added a second interception on a decisive goal-line stand after a deflection from cornerback Dontae Johnson, a fellow 49ers rookie.
“One thing that has become clear to us as a staff over the period we’ve been together evaluating talent is that the one constant with the linebacker position is if they make plays in college, they are generally going to step in and make plays at the NFL level,” Baalke said.
“Guys who don’t make plays but run fast and jump high, have all the characteristics physically that you’re looking for but don’t make any plays in college, generally come to the National Football League and don’t make plays, either. It’s a position where instincts matter a great deal, production matters a great deal, and the carryover from college to pro is usually very consistent.”
Borland has proven, thus far, to be one exceptional exception.