Judging a player's value in the NFL is very difficult. Production can be the result of the system in which a player plays or a consequence of the players around him. To adjust for these variations, this comparison is constructed using only San Francisco 49ers draft picks since 2000. These players have shared teammates with one another and have also competed against common opponents. This list tries to show not who the most prolific performers have been but rather who has provided the strongest performance in their 49er career based on the round in which he was drafted.
Please comment below if you agree or disagree with the players on this list.
In his first year of playing in the starting lineup, Tarell Brown started every game for the San Francisco 49ers in 2012. He intercepted four balls, tying him for fourth-most in the NFL along with other more heralded and higher drafted corners like Jonathan Joseph and Antonio Cromartie. It could be argued that in 2012 he provided the 49ers with much more value than players drafted several rounds ahead of him.
Eric Heitmann went from being one of the last selections in the 2002 NFL Draft to being praised as one of the best players on the team and one of the best centers in the NFC West. While he never matched (no Pro Bowls) his predecessor, Pro Football Weekly first-team NFC All-Pro center Jeremy Newberry, in production, he provided the 49ers with terrific value after being left for dead in the seventh round of the draft.
Andy Lee was a very important part of the 2011 49ers' NFC West championship team. He set the NFL record in average net punt distance (44.6 yards per punt), was selected to his third Pro Bowl and also to his third Associated Press (AP) All-Pro team. He pinned opponents deep within their own zone, contributing to San Francisco possessing the top-rated starting field position in 2011. Not bad for a sixth round pick.
San Francisco sat Goldson for two years behind incumbent Mark Roman, finally allowing the former fourth round pick to start in 2009. In his first full season as a starter, Goldson led the team in interceptions (four), placed second in tackles only behind all-world Patrick Willis (94), forced three fumbles and even rang up two sacks. His production dropped off in 2010, but the team was mired in tumult with the coaching staff seemingly always at odds with the management team. Last season, Goldson rebounded in a huge way by posting the second-most interceptions (six) in the NFL and was selected to his first ever Pro Bowl.
In SF 49er Nation, it is blasphemy to describe Patrick Willis as anything but a demigod. His childhood forced him to become man of the house by age 13, having been tasked with raising his younger siblings since he was in middle school. Finding success after such a dismal and bleak upbringing is nothing short of a miracle. His four-time AP All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowl selections have all but secured Willis' bust to be enshrined in Canton. Willis' first-round selection in the 2007 draft showed the expectations of a storied franchise that have only been exceeded.
NaVorro Bowman is one of these rare linebacker specimens who is more known for his intelligence than for his outright athleticism. Selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Bowman was labeled as an undersized inside linebacker but possessed an excellent feel for the game. Apparently, the 49ers saw something in him that 31 other teams did not. His cerebral approach to the game (and sideline-to-sideline speed) has made him a deadly defensive weapon. Pro Football Focus graded Bowman out as one of the top two run-stopping linebackers in 2011. He was also named an AP first-team All-Pro, joining fellow linemate, Patrick Willis, on the honorary squad.
Frank Gore, the 49ers' career rushing record holder, has been the offensive building block for the San Francisco 49ers ever since he was drafted 65th overall in 2005 NFL Draft. A victim of two torn ACLs on different knees at "the U", Gore has also had to persevere intellectually in his career, having to learn the schemes of three different head coaches during his 49ers career. He has had much success despite being the focus of the 49ers' opponents' extra attention due to SF's subpar quarterback play.
A dual threat out of the backfield, Gore has ranked in the top 10 in the NFL three times for most touches in a season, and currently ranks sixth among active players. He's been the most productive player from the Mike Nolan era that still remains on the team, and was had for a third round pick. Since 2000, Frank Gore has been the most valuable San Francisco 49er.
Coach Harbaugh transformed a 6-10 team in 2010 into an NFC Championship game-hosting, NFC West division-winning 2011 club that went 13-3 during a lockout-shortened season, severely limiting his access to players and them to him. Though the team lost to the eventual Super Bowl champs in the NFC Championship, the organization did bring home some hardware: Harbaugh won Coach of the Year and GM Trent Baalke was named Executive of the Year.