San Francisco 49ers: How They've Built a Perennial Contender Through the Draft

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIApril 1, 2014

San Francisco 49ers first round NFL football draft picks Patrick Willis, right, linebacker with Mississippi, and Joe Staley,  left, offensive tackle with Central Michigan, smile with their new jerseys during a news conference at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, April 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Paul Sakiuma

When you look at the San Francisco 49ers roster from last season, the sheer number of players taken in the draft pops out at you.

Of the 71 players on the 49ers roster at the end of the season, 31 were draft picks of some description.  Add in the 15 undrafted free agents, and nearly 65 percent of San Francisco’s squad was put together outside of big-name free-agent signings.

49ers 2013 Roster Origins
MethodNo. of PlayersExamples
Drafted31Colin Kaepernick, Joe Staley, NaVorro Bowman
Undrafted Free Agent15Alex Boone, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Tramaine Brock
Unrestricted Free Agent10Jonathan Goodwin, Justin Smith, Donte Whitner
Street Free Agents9Will Tukuafu, Michael Wilhoite, Eric Wright
Trades3Colt McCoy, Anquan Boldin, Jon Baldwin
Waivers2Ahmad Brooks, C.J. Spillman
Signed from Practice Squad1Ryan Seymour

The 49ers have opted to build their team smartly, cheaply and efficiently, rather than blowing money overpaying for high-priced free agents.  This philosophy has allowed them to assemble a perennial contender—it’s a sustainable strategy for long-term success.

The core of the 49ers was put together in the 2010 and 2011 drafts, each ran by current general manager Trent Baalke.  Those two seasons saw the 49ers add Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Chris Culliver and Daniel Kilgore to their roster—all expected to start in 2014.  That’s nearly a third of the starting lineup taken in just two drafts.

The 2012 draft looks to be more or less a bust at this point, though it’s still early, but 2013 saw the 49ers add Eric Reid to the starting lineup, with players like Quinton Patton, Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore slotted to see more playing time this season.

The team has benefited from Kaepernick's cheap rookie deal.
The team has benefited from Kaepernick's cheap rookie deal.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Since the rookie salary scale was put into place in 2011, the most cost-efficient way to build a contender under the salary cap is through the draft.  The 49ers got away with paying Colin Kaepernick less than $600,000 last season thanks to his status as a draft pick, saving the team millions against the cap.  He isn’t even the highest-paid quarterback on the roster.

By nailing starters in the draft, the 49ers have had the luxury to go after moderately priced free agents to fill holes, rather than getting into bidding wars for the cream of the NFL crop.  While it’s true a player like Aqib Talib would be a great addition to a team, the eight-digit salary-cap hits Talib brings with him, per Spotrac, would imbalance the team’s salary structure.

Therefore, since Baalke took over the team, the 49ers haven’t made the big splash in free agency.  The closest thing to a major signing they’ve had was bringing Phil Dawson into the fold in 2012—hardly breaking the bank there.

Because they’re confident in their draft picks, they’re all right in letting expensive players go in free agency.  Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock will move from backup roles to regular starters, rather than the 49ers overpaying to keep Carlos Rodgers or Tarell Brown in free agency.  Daniel Kilgore will step in for Jonathan Goodwin.  Quinton Patton moves up to take Mario Manningham’s slot.  And so the roster keeps turning over.

The 49ers drafted Staley high and then re-signed him before he could ever hit free agency.
The 49ers drafted Staley high and then re-signed him before he could ever hit free agency.Greg Trott/Getty Images

That’s not to say the team should never keep its own free agents—the 49ers just make sure that they’re getting good deals when extending their key players.  Joe Staley, for example, is signed through 2017 at only an average of $7.2 million a year, keeping him out of the top 10 highest-paid left tackles.  By signing him before he could reach free agency, the 49ers got an elite lineman at a discount.

That’s the strategy they’re taking with Colin Kaepernick, as well—paying him before they have to get into a bidding war for his services.

It all comes back to the success in the draft, however.  Nailing your draft picks not only gets you players playing well at a fraction of their true market value, but also gives you that first right to negotiate with them, allowing you to keep them on your team.  You can either re-sign players on team-friendly deals, or you can draft their successors and plug them in as needed.

The salary cap basically ensures that the majority of your team can’t be highly paid.  With a $133 million salary-cap number, the average player on your team can only make just over $2.5 million.  If you succeed in the draft, those players making less than $2.5 million can be valuable contributors, rather than just fodder to fill out your roster.

For the 49ers to continue their success in the long term, they’re going to have to continue to draft well.  The 2012 draft looks like a bust as it stands now; only LaMichael James contributed to the team in a notable capacity last season.  That puts pressure on both the 2013 class, which didn’t have much of an opportunity to contribute last season, and the upcoming 2014 class to make a large impact.

No team can expect to get three or four solid starters in every draft.  That’s a success rate that’s almost impossible to keep up.  On the other hand, a few drafts like 2012 in a row, and the team will find it’s window slamming shut sooner rather than later.

For the 49ers to continue as perennial contenders, especially as Kaepernick’s valuable contract balloons upward, they’re going to have to continue excelling in the draft, year after year.

What does that mean in 2014?  It means not only finding players to fill current holes, but also preparing for pending free agents in upcoming seasons.

The 49ers hope Marcus Lattimore can take over for Frank Gore sooner or later.
The 49ers hope Marcus Lattimore can take over for Frank Gore sooner or later.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Last season, we saw Marcus Lattimore drafted as a potential replacement for Frank Gore, and Tank Carradine drafted as a potential replacement for Justin Smith.  This year, we could see players drafted as the heirs apparent to players such as Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith and Glenn Dorsey, all of whom loom as free agents in 2015.  While the 49ers will try their best to keep all of them, drafting solid replacements is a necessity in the salary-cap-driven NFL.

Trent Baalke and his staff have shown good drafting skills so far during their NFL tenure.  As long as they keep consistently adding talent through the draft, the 49ers look to be contenders for a long time to come.


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