San Francisco 49ers' 9 Biggest Draft Fails from 1992-2011
The thing about drafting is that assessing if a first-round draft pick can develop into a long-term, effective NFL player is—according to general managers, personnel directors and scouts—a crapshoot.
There are legendary failures for all teams (see Akili Smith, JaMarcus Russell, et al), and the cause of the misjudgment is usually not simple. It’s not the failed assessment of physical talent as much as what the team needs and whether it fits the player’s personality, skill set and coachability.
Up until, oh, December 2011, many 49ers fans considered Alex Smith the No. 1 Draft Bust, Absolute Failure, Get Him Out of Town Bum in franchise history. The play of Alex Smith in 2011 just shows the hit-or-miss nature of the draft.
Hardly anyone thought at Aldon Smith would have 14 sacks as a rookie. Sixteen years ago, many thought Jim Drunkenmiller had the sort of cannon that was going to allow the Niners offense to expand beyond its West Coast construction.
As such, looking back at the biggest draft failures of the 49ers over the last 20 years, it’s not so much the player taken as what the front office and coaching staff expected.
That’s what makes this list so compelling—often it’s not the player’s fault. It’s what the team thought the player had, and he didn’t. That’s how many of these players ended up on this list.
No. 9: Dana Hall
The Niners fell to 4-6 midway in the ’91 season and then won their last six to finish 10-6, but they missed the playoffs.
The offense finished third in points, the defense 14th.
It was a solid team that needed to get healthy, and they went on to win the Super Bowl after the 1994 season.
The thinking appeared to suggest the Niners defense, coordinated by Bill McPherson, needed more impact in the middle of the field, so Dana Hall of Washington was picked with the 18th selection overall.
Hall, a tall, rangy player more accustomed to playing “center field” rather near the line of scrimmage, played tentatively when confronted with larger tight ends, as sometimes happens when teams use formations to change a defense’s assignments. And Hall sometimes was a step slow to the sidelines to help corners on deep coverages.
If Hall had been taken in the fifth round and finished as he did, no one would consider that anything but standard. That he was taken so high suggests that too much was expected of him.
No. 8: Mike Rumph
The 27th player taken in the ’02 draft, Mike Rumph (6’2”, 205) was expected to be a shutdown corner.
Someone who could take away the favorite target of a QB like Brett Favre, who had beaten the Niners 25-15 in the divisional playoffs the previous season.
But Rumph could never overcome injuries in college, and when you’re hobbled in the pros, it increases the chances of adding more injuries. He started once in ’92, 13 times in ’93, and then just 12 times over the next three years, which included a stop in Washington.
The thing is, looking over the draft, the best DB in the draft was Roy Williams, who was taken in the top 10 by the Cowboys.
He was more of a run-support player than someone expected to provide more one-on-one coverage, but the Niners never had a shot.
No. 7: J. J. Stokes
The 6’5” receiver out of UCLA in was the 10th player taken in the ’95 draft.
The Niners traded away a first and a second to move up to get Stokes in the hopes that he could develop into a stable replacement for Jerry Rice.
As good as he looked in college, the pro game gave him fits at first. He was slow off the line and often couldn’t shake press coverage.
In a timing offense like the 49ers', that left him covered or in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This may sound harsh on Stokes, because he did have an eight-year career in San Francisco and did have two seasons as a full-time starter, but his best year came in ’98, when he finished with eight TDs on 65 receptions.
He had good hands when he was open, but he rarely broke tackles. And he might be more famous as the reception of Bill Romanowski’s famous expectoration than anything else.
No. 6: Manny Lawson
The 22nd player taken in the ’06 draft (after Vernon Davis was taken with the sixth), Lawson was head coach Mike Nolan’s hope for an outside rusher.
He wasn’t a force off the edge, but he wasn’t a complete failure.
He was pretty decent in pass coverage, commendable for someone 6’5”.
Lawson, released after his contract expired, played well in Cincinnati in 2012. And he did suffer a major knee injury in ’07 that curtailed his development.
But he never could get any pressure on the pocket from the edge, save for 2009, when he had 6.5 sacks.
Of note was the fact that the Oakland Raiders took Thomas Howard with the 38th pick the same year, and he was much more effective in that pass-rushing role.
No. 5: Kentwan Balmer
The 29th selection in 2009, Balmer (6’5” and just less than 300 pounds) was expected to play a strong role in the middle of the defensive line.
He never started a game and had minimal impact when he did play.
That he was a defensive tackle at North Carolina but was shifted to DE in the Niners’ 3-4 alignment probably didn’t help. A shoulder injury ended his season in 2009.
Balmer was the fifth defensive linemen selected in the first round of that draft, and perhaps that suggests the Niners, in need of more defensive help, reached to get Balmer.
But what might haunt the Niners is that still undrafted at the time was Calais Campbell, the 6’6” bull who now anchors the Cardinals DL and ranks as a rising star in the NFL.
That’s what hurts.
No. 4: Reggie McGrew
The 24th player taken in the ’99 draft, the former Florida standout lasted barely three years and played less and less as he went on.
The Niners were coming off a 12-4 season that had them second to the 14-2 Falcons in the NFC West.
With Garrison Hearst, Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens, the Niners still ranked as one of the best offensive teams, but the defense struggled.
Interior pressure from the defensive line was thought to be the answer, but the 6’1, 310-pound McGrew (92) started no games in three years, the last being in Atlanta.
In looking at the draft picks that came after McGrew, it has to be said that none really stood out at any position, including DT.
Again, it might be a matter that the Niners reached and went on McGrew’s specs rather than talent.
No. 3: Rashaun Woods
The 31st player taken in the 2004 draft, Woods, through no fault of his own, represents the worst of the Niners front office dysfunction.
Owner Eddie DeBartolo had been banned, his brother-in-law, John York, assumed control and fired Steve Mariucci in 2003 despite making the playoffs.
The general manager was Terry Donahue, the former UCLA coach who spent many weekdays in Los Angeles rather than the team’s offices in Santa Clara.
The Niners were still reeling from free-agent signings in the mid-90s, such as Brent Jones. Cap space was low.
They couldn’t afford a high pick, so they dumped and hoped to get financially healthy in ’05 and later. And for that, Niners fans got to hang their hopes on a 6’2”, 202-pound receiver who was a step slow, couldn’t beat press coverage (or any other for that matter) and who played only seven games and caught seven passes.
It wasn’t Woods’ fault but an indication of a franchise in crisis mode.
No. 2: Kwame Harris
At 6’7” and 310 pounds, Harris, out of Stanford, appeared to be that “plant him at left tackle for 10 years” player who could defend the quarterback’s backside.
It’s safe to say that Harris couldn’t handle the quickness of NFL defensive ends and linebackers.
And when a player like that is a liability, it is a coach’s responsibility to keep him on the bench, because his lack of ability doesn’t necessarily mean a sack as much as a constant threat of a career-ending injury for a teammate.
That he played as much as he did shows how depleted the team was in terms of talent.
Harris constantly ranked among the most penalized linemen in the game, and when he went off to Oakland after five years, you could say that, after making the transition to right tackle, he was OK.
But as hardly a standout at a critical position, Harris ranks as another black mark on the Donahue Era.
No. 1: Jim Drunkenmiller
Ahh, yes—the End of the Empire days was in full bloom in San Francisco.
Having come off successive playoff losses to the Packers, the Niners were in need of regeneration at crucial positions, namely quarterback.
Steve Young was getting old, and so with Bill Walsh back in the fold to help with the draft, it came down to Virginia Tech’s Drunkenmiller (6’5”, 235 pounds) and Jake Plummer, the 6’2" 200-pounder out of Arizona State.
Walsh reportedly loved Plummer for his guile and his fast feet, reminding him of a third-round pick in 1978 named Joe Montana.
I have not heard the full explanation of what happened—there has been plenty of finger-pointing about who or what—but one thing was clear. Drunkenmiller played sparingly and simply couldn’t handle the West Coast system of quick reads and accurate throws to small windows at the right time.
He didn’t have the footwork and didn’t have the capability to grasp the offense.
Plummer, meanwhile, turned out to be good for Mike Shanahan in Denver, though he too was found to be wanting and was replaced by Jay Cutler. But he would have been a good fit for the 49ers at the time.