Seahawks Perspective: Seattle needed depth behind Brandon Mebane. It wanted to improve its depth behind Red Bryant. Kentwan Balmer is a good height-weight-speed talent that did enough as a senior to warrant early round consideration. Guys like Balmer have intrinsic value. His raw physical ability is rare whatever his performance.
Trading for Balmer represents a meaningful shift in the Seahawks talent evaluation. Tim Ruskell emphasized good football players. Max Unger is good at football. Max Unger has relatively ordinary physical ability. No matter how he progresses as a player, he will never be standout strong, standout fast or standout large.
Seattle is attempting to dramatically improve its foundation of talent. Balmer is a high-risk, high-variance talent that has the potential to be a starter or even a star. And the chance to bust out of the league.
49ers Perspective: San Francisco used a late first round pick to acquire Balmer. There is a meaningful difference between an early first round pick and a late first round pick. To put it into perspective, PFR's Approximate Value estimates the 28th pick to be worth 10 fewer "points" than a 13th overall pick and 10 more "points" than a 61st-65th overall pick. This is important to establish, because people tend to put rounds into buckets. Rounds are an organizing construct. They do not determine the projected value of a player. San Francisco didn't bust the bank. It turned a pick with the Approximate Value of ~Leroy Hill into a pick with the Approximate Value of ~Will Herring.
Balmer forced the 49ers hand. Whatever the reason, he was not interested in playing for San Francisco and had been absent without leave from 49ers training camp. We may never know how this situation became so toxic so quick, but Balmer's absence hurt the 49ers' leverage. San Francisco could have chosen to be stubborn and eventually attempt to recoup part of his salary or it could accept the sunk cost and hopefully turn Balmer into something of value.
This is not entirely different from Seattle trading Darryl Tapp. Seattle was able to get more for a better, more accomplished player, but it still presumably traded down because Tapp did not fit Carroll's preferred scheme. Balmer may or may not be a proper scheme fit for San Francisco, but something about him didn't fit and Balmer's continued absence forced a move.
Without knowing the particulars of why Balmer was absent or whether San Francisco could realistically cater to his needs, it's impossible to say whether the 49ers traded low because of irreconcilable differences or because of something that is conceivably fixable. What we do know is that something forced the 49ers to accept a loss. This is a loss. San Francisco traded a first round pick plus one season for a sixth round pick.
Global Perspective: Each team had its reasons, and neither team is assured to win or lose this trade, but the Seahawks invested in premium talent at a bargain price, from a division rival no less, and the 49ers accepted a loss on what they deemed an unsalvageable bust. The 49ers only win if Balmer also busts for Seattle, and their return is a sixth round pick. Pretty minor. Seattle wins if Balmer outperforms a sixth round pick, which is by no means a sure thing. Pretty low standard, though. San Francisco could have avoided this problem by trading out of the division.
San Francisco did what they could with a bad hand, and it was a bad hand, but trading talent to a division rival might compound their loss. By trading out of the division, San Francisco would have assured that they would win any trade in which the return was more valuable to them than Balmer. Given that Balmer had no value, any pick would be a win. By trading within the division, San Francisco loses any trade in which the Seahawks, a rival, derive more value from Balmer than the 49ers do the return: a sixth round selection. That seems like a bad gamble. Balmer not only contributes to a team attempting to win the same division, but Balmer contributes to a team that will face San Francisco twice each season. His play directly and indirectly impacts the 49ers chances to win the NFC West. That is why inter-divisional trades are so controversial.
Apart from their chosen trading partner, though, the original selection of Balmer is the critical mistake and the trade simply the unsavory ending. Maybe. There is one loose end. If Balmer does thrive in Seattle, what about San Francisco prevented him from thriving there? And is that idea, player, coach or executive worth protecting? Has San Francisco rid themselves of the problem for the greater good? Or has San Francisco removed the canary to keep the coal mine open?
We shall see.