It is a testament to the information age that, if you play college football and you meet certain physical specs, there’s a good chance you’re going to get scouted. Teams put so much effort in developing their own talent that missing out on the small-school star or the big-school backup makes general managers grind their teeth.
Now that the NFL draft has been dropped to seven rounds, each pick becomes much more calculated. Front-office personnel don’t really care where good players come from, but the manager of the team’s salary cap does.
A team that drafts a long-term starter in the late rounds invariably gets a great deal because that player for his first three or four years doesn’t earn as much as players drafted in the first or second rounds.
So there’s as much scrutiny put into the late rounds as the early ones; getting good players for less than other teams means more flexibility in maintaining roster continuity. The late-round stars often stay with teams longer because their contracts fit into the team’s salary structure.
The Forty-Niners have had good and desultory results with their late-round picks. Often, former coach Bill Walsh traded them away. Nonetheless, over the last 30 years or so, there have been a few gems.
Here are the 10 best late-round 49er draft picks in recent franchise history.
The 197th player taken in the sixth round of the 2003 draft, Battle, out of Notre Dame, proved himself capable as a receiver and a special teams standout. He averaged nearly 18 yards per return in his rookie year, and he started 30 games over the ’06-’07 seasons, racking up 109 catches in those two seasons.
Another sixth-round pick, the 177th player taken out of Michigan, Streets (89) served the Niners well, starting 42 of the 45 games he was available for from 2003-05.
After the Niners, he played a year in Detroit and his six-year career seems rather short compared to Battle, but Streets earns a higher spot for one simple fact.
He caught the pass from Jeff Garcia that proved to be the winning points in SF’s memorable 39-38 victory over the Giants in the 2002 playoffs.
This offensive guard out Arizona State was the 248th player taken—a seven-round draft pick in 2002. He was also one of the bigger linemen in Niner history, coming in at 305 pounds. And he developed into a full-time starter in 2004.
He played the next year in Detroit, and then became a regular in Dallas, where he played and started most of the time during his six years there.
Taken in the seventh round in 2001, this tight end out of Yale was one of the best pickups during a rather poor draft run in the first part this century. Johnson (6’3”, 256) started 14 games as a rookie and quickly became a favorite of quarterback Jeff Garcia.
Johnson’s year was 2004 when he had 82 receptions at 10 yards per. After four years in SF, he played one more season in New Orleans—a victim of nagging injuries.
The 239th player taken in the ’02 draft, this seventh-rounder out of Stanford might still be playing and starting had not a neck injury sidelined him 2010. He retired last year.
He was versatile, smart and one of the best centers in the game though he played one on some of the worst teams in franchise history. He was a commendable warrior.
The only member of this group still on the active roster, Jennings ostensibly is a tight end by trade, but he’s lasted this long as a long-snapper. He was taken in the seventh round of the 2000 draft, selection No. 230.
Of note, he and Andy Lee might be the best golfers on the team.
I admit, I’m a big Larry Grant fan. It’s the way he filled in for an injured Patrick Willis last year and performed well. Of course, his strip-sack of Tarvaris Jackson in Week 17 at Seattle ranks as one of the key plays of the season.
The seventh-round pick (No. 214) of the 2008 draft, he possesses good speed and good judgment yet didn’t make the Niners. He played three years in St. Louis and started a total of eight games in three years.
Of course, the Rams haven’t been all that much in the last three years. Grant, meanwhile, is an underrated gem as a fast, sure-tackling inside linebacker.
A sixth-round pick out of Central Missouri State, Walker ranks as one of the best backup tight ends in the game. (Note: Aaron Fernandez of New England is not a backup.)
Walker’s versatility in receiving and blocking made the Niners offense. His key blocks in the Detroit game sprung Frank Gore for two big runs. He capped that game off with the clutch catch of the Smith pass for the winning score.
Walker will become a free agent after this year, and it will be interesting to see if the Niners hang onto him past his sixth season.
The 182nd player taken in the 1994 draft, Woodall (6’1” and 224) came in and started 14 games for one of the best teams in the history of the game.
Coming out of that noted college power West Chester (joke), Woodall demonstrated remarkable speed and tackling skills as an outside linebacker.
He made two Pro Bowls (’95 and ’97), and yet, never received as much media attention as other well-known linebackers.
A 10th-round pick in 1979 (back then, they had 10 rounds), Clark, a gangly 6’4” receiver out of Clemson, only got on the Niners' radar screen because he worked out with Steve Fuller—a Clemson quarterback that coach Bill Walsh considered in the draft. (Walsh chose another quarterback instead, out of Notre Dame).
Clark excelled in the Niner offense. His sure hands, good size and strong downfield blocking made him a major cog in the team’s early 1980s success.
Having covered him later in his career, I can say that he actually was faster as a pro than a collegian. He also made two Pro Bowls and earned All-Pro honors, this in the strike-shortened ’82 season when he was on track for about 115 catches (he finished with 60 in nine games).
Of course, all that is mute due to one catch he had in December 1981. It’s only the iconic play of the franchise.