San Francisco 49ers: Top 10 Drafts of All Time

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIApril 11, 2014

San Francisco 49ers: Top 10 Drafts of All Time

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    With 11 draft picks in what is being called one of the deepest classes ever, the San Francisco 49ers have a chance to have one of their greatest draft classes of all time.  It’ll be a tall task to challenge some of the great classes of yesteryear, but it’s an admirable goal at any rate.

    With that in mind, let’s look at the competition.  Here are the 10 greatest draft classes the franchise has ever managed to produce.

    Several factors went into this ranking.  Obviously, the major ranking factor was overall talent, but circumstances factor in as well—it’s easier to nail multiple starters and Pro Bowlers with multiple first-round picks than it is if you’re starting in the second or third round.

    This is just a ranking of finding talent, not keeping it—if a player was drafted by the 49ers but left in free agency, that doesn’t make the actual draft any worse.

    It’s interesting to note that the vast majority of these classes come from the dynasty years of the ‘80s and early ‘90s—it shows how powerful the draft can be when building a franchise.

    We’re also crediting the head coach and the general manager/other key front office personnel for each draft.  You may see a few names pop up over and over again.

    With no further ado, here's the 10th-best class of all time:

10. 1985

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    Chris O'Meara

    Head coach Bill Walsh; general manager John McVay

    • 1.16 Jerry Rice, WR, Mississippi Valley State
    • 3.75 Ricky Moore, RB, Alabama
    • 5.140 Bruce Collie, G, Texas-Arlington
    • 6.168 Scott Barry, QB, California-Davis
    • 11.308 David Wood, DE, Arizona
    • 12.336 Donald Chumley, Georgia

    30 seasons played, 21 seasons started, 13 Pro Bowls, 10 All-Pros

    The very definition of a one-player draft class, the 1985 draft doesn’t show Walsh and McVay at their best when it comes to squeezing maximum value of their draft picks.  Barry, Wood and Chumley never saw an NFL field at all.

    When your draft class includes arguably the best ever to play the game, however, all of that amounts to little.  Walsh was captivated by Rice despite the small school he played in and the poor combine numbers he put up.  Walsh made a trade up to No. 16, jumping ahead of the Dallas Cowboys to grab Rice, and the rest was history.

    Imagine if anyone else in the draft lived up to those expectations!  Moore ran for only 126 yards in three seasons, while Collie was a solid backup for seven seasons.  Make no mistake, however—this is all Jerry Rice.

9. 2005

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    Mark Zaleski

    Head coach Mike Nolan; VP of Player Personnel Scot McCloughan

    • 1.1 Alex Smith, QB, Utah
    • 2.33 David Baas, G, Michigan
    • 3.65 Frank Gore, RB, Miami (Fla.)
    • 3.94 Adam Snyder, T, Oregon
    • 5.137 Ronald Fields, DT, Mississippi State
    • 5.174 Rasheed Marshall, WR, West Virginia
    • 6.205 Derrick Johnson, DB, Washington
    • 7.215 Daven Holley, DB, Cincinnati
    • 7.223 Marcus Maxwell, WR, Oregon
    • 7.248 Patrick Estes, TE, Virginia
    • 7.249 Billy Bajema, TE, Oklahoma State

     61 seasons played, 34 seasons started, six Pro Bowls, no All-Pros

    Three years ago, this draft doesn’t sniff the top 10.  It's still a little controversial now.

    Three years ago, Alex Smith is arguably the biggest bust the San Francisco 49ers have ever drafted.  He alone weighs the entire class down.

    Then Jim Harbaugh came to town and revitalized Smith’s career.  He's now an above-average NFL quarterback.

    Make no mistake—using the No. 1 pick on Smith was still a poor decision, even with Smith making the Pro Bowl in 2013.  Had the 49ers taken Aaron Rodgers with the first overall pick, the draft would be much higher on this list.

    Smith’s no longer enough to blank out Frank Gore’s selection in the third round, however.  Gore, the leading rusher in San Francisco history, plummeted due to injuries in college.  The 49ers took a gamble on him, and he paid off, sometimes single-handedly carrying the offense during the lean years of the franchise.

    That third round also gave San Francisco Adam Snyder, who has bounced between being the worst starting lineman and the best reserve lineman for the 49ers and Cardinals—that’s a fairly good value that deep in a draft.

    The most impressive thing about the 2009 draft, however, is that every single player taken by the 49ers in this draft ended up playing in the NFL.  Every single player contributed in some way—that's a rarity in any class.  That puts Gore and Company just ahead of the Jerry Rice-only draft in '85.

8. 1979

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    Paul Sakuma

    Head coach/general manager Bill Walsh

    • 2.29 James Owens, RB, UCLA
    • 3.82 Joe Montana, QB, Notre Dame
    • 5.111 Tom Seabron, LB, Michigan
    • 5.119 Jerry Aldridge, RB, Angelo State
    • 6.138 Ruben Vaughan, DT, Colorado
    • 7.166 Phil Francis, RB, Stanford
    • 9.221 Steve Hamilton, DT, Missouri
    • 10.249 Dwight Clark, WR, Clemson
    • 10.252 Howard Ballage, DB, Colorado
    • 11.276 Billy McBride, DB, Tennessee State

    38 seasons played, 20 seasons started, 10 Pro Bowls, four All-Pros

    Bill Walsh’s first draft in San Francisco only produced two players of note, but those two players were involved in the single most important play in 49ers history, so we’ll call that a win.

    Joe Montana fell to the third round because of a lack of arm strength.  He was considered less of a prospect than Jack Thompson simply due to his lack of impressive measurables, despite impressive college success.

    Dwight Clark wasn’t even considered a pro prospect by most teams; Walsh found him at the draft when scouting Clemson quarterback Steve Fuller.

    The 49ers might have missed out on both players had they had a first-round selection that year, but they had traded that away for O.J. Simpson.  With a first-round pick, Walsh could easily have selected Phil Simms, altering the fate of the franchise.

    Montana and Clark’s success helps hide the fact that there’s nothing else good in this draft.  Owens was a particularly poor choice in the second round, as he only started one season and didn’t crack 1,000 yards for his career.  Still, with no huge busts and two of the best value picks of all time, ’79 comes out alright.

7. 1968

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    NFL Photos

    Head coach Dick Nolan; general manager Louis Spadia

    • 1.15 Forrest Blue, C, Auburn
    • 3.65 Lance Olssen, T, Purdue
    • 3.69 Skip Vanderbundt, LB, Oregon State
    • 4.98 Johnny Fuller, DB, Lamar
    • 5.125 Dwight Lee, RB, Michigan State
    • 6.141 Lee Johnson, WR, Tennessee State
    • 6.153 Bill Belk, DE, Maryland-Eastern Shore
    • 7.179 Jerry Richardson, LB, Mississippi
    • 8.206 Charley Brown, T, Augustana
    • 8.207 Tom Gray, FL, Morehead State
    • 9.233 Casey Boyett, E, BYU
    • 10.261 Tommy Hart, DE, Morris Brown
    • 11.287 Dennis Fitzgibbons, G, Syracuse
    • 12.315 Henry Johnson, QB, Fisk
    • 13.341 Tom Mitrakos, C, Pittsburgh
    • 14.369 Alex Moore, RB, Norfolk State
    • 15.395 Clarence Spencer, FL, Louisville
    • 16.423 Tom Rosenow, DT, Northern Illinois
    • 17.449 Dennis Paterka, K, BYU

    56 seasons played, 30 seasons started, five Pro Bowls, two All-Pros

    The Dick Nolan era is too often forgotten, eclipsed as it was by the great success of the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Nolan led the franchise to three playoff appearances in an era before wild cards—the first sustained success in franchise history.  His teams got its biggest boost from this draft, though part of that is due to having 19 draft picks.

    The best overall player in the draft was Forrest Blue, who ended up starting 82 games at center for San Francisco between 1969 and 1974, making four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams in the process—he was a rock on the line.

    Better value, however, can be found in the 10th round with Tommy Hart, who ended up unofficially with 106 sacks over the course of his career.  Add in another great player, Skip Vanderbundt, in the third round plus a solid depth in Bill Belk, and you have a great defensive foundation built up in this draft, one of the last before the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.

    There were no outright busts in this draft, though you’d hope a third-round selection like Lance Olssen would play more than nine games in his NFL career.

6. 1981

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    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Head coach/general manager Bill Walsh

    • 1.8 Ronnie Lott, DB, USC
    • 2.36 John Harty, NT, Iowa
    • 2.40 Eric Wright, DB, Missouri
    • 3.65 Carlton Williamson, DB, Pittsburgh
    • 5.121 Lynn Thomas, DB, Pittsburgh
    • 5.122 Arrington Jones, RB, Winston-Salem State
    • 6.147 Pete Kugler, NT, Penn State
    • 8.203 Garry White, RB, Minnesota
    • 11.286 Ronnie DeBose, TE, UCLA
    • 12.313 Major Ogilvie, RB, Alabama
    • 12.322 Joe Adams, QB, Tennessee State

    47 seasons played, 29 seasons started, 14 Pro Bowls, seven All-Pros

    Bill Walsh faced a conundrum in 1981.  His offense was ready to go with Joe Montana, Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon already in place, but his defensive secondary was a disaster.

    The solution?  Use three of his first four picks on Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson.  Problem solved.

    Lott, a Hall of Famer, is obviously the best of the three, but all of them started at least six seasons in the NFL.  Both Wright and Williamson made multiple Pro Bowls in their careers.  Wright might be a little better, hanging around for three extra seasons, but all three players played key roles right off of the bat.  This year’s team would love to have that kind of impact.

    The 49ers' other second-round pick, John Harty, puts a bit of a damper on the class.  Harty only started in the strike-shortened ’82 season, totaling 2.5 sacks in his NFL career.  I suppose you can’t win them all.

5. 1976

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    George Rose/Getty Images

    Head coach Monte Clark; general manager Louis Spadia

    • 2.42 Randy Cross, G, UCLA
    • 2.57 Eddie Lewis, DB, Kansas
    • 4.100 Steve Rivera, WR, California
    • 5.140 Tony Leonard, DB, Virginia Union
    • 6.168 Robert Pennywell, LB, Grambling State
    • 6.177 Scott Bull, QB, Arkansas
    • 7.194 Jay Chesley, DB, Vanderbilt
    • 8.223 John Ayers, G, West Texas A&M
    • 9.250 Kenny Harrison, WR, SMU
    • 10.275 Robin Ross, T, Washington State
    • 11.305 Paul Hofer, RB, Mississippi
    • 12.332 Gerald Loper, G, Florida
    • 13.359 Larry Brumfield, DB, Indiana State
    • 14.389 Johnny Miller, G, Livingstone
    • 15.416 Howard Stidham, LB, Tennessee Tech
    • 16.443 Reggie Lewis, DE, San Diego State
    • 17.473 Darryl Jenkins, RB, San Jose State

    57 seasons played, 31 seasons started, three Pro Bowls, seven All-Pros

    This draft is the epitome of quantity over quality.  While no one involved is a Hall of Famer or anything of that nature, eight of them ended up starting at least 30 games in the NFL.  Only Steve Rivera comes close to being a bad pick, and he played 15 games over his career.

    Randy Cross and John Ayers are the highlights.  Between them, they started 22 seasons on the offensive line and gave Bill Walsh something to build with when he came to the franchise in 1979.  Paul Hofer, an 11th-round pick, split time in the 49ers backfield for six seasons himself.

    Finally, Robert Pennywell never made the 49ers but instead started 42 games for the Falcons—a talented player they let slip through their fingers.  This is not unexpected, considering the team was in such a poor state at the end of the ‘70s.

4. 1983

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Head coach Bill Walsh; general manager John McVay

    • 2.49 Roger Craig, RB, Nebraska
    • 3.59 Blanchard Montgomery, LB, UCLA
    • 4.90 Tom Holmoe, DB, BYU
    • 5.117 Riki Ellison, LB, USC
    • 7.175 Gary Moten, LB, SMU
    • 9.229 Mike Mularkey, TE, Florida
    • 10.259 Jeff Merrell, DT, Nebraska
    • 11.289 Jesse Sapolu, C, Hawaii

    52 seasons played, 29 seasons started, six Pro Bowls, one All-Pro

    From a pure value standpoint, it’s hard to top picking a player like Sapolu in the 11th round.  Sapolu was a starter for a decade at center and guard, and he is one of only five players to have four of the 49ers’ five Super Bowl rings—the only one to do it without the 1981 ring, as a matter of fact.

    Then you have Roger Craig, who keeps skirting about the edge of the Hall of Fame discussion and might just get in one of these days.  He certainly deserves consideration, being one of the first dual threats, paving the way for players like Marshall Faulk.

    Riki Ellison started for eight seasons in his own right, five of them in San Francisco—while he was never the biggest name at linebacker, he was a key player, far beyond what you could reasonably expect from a fifth-round pick.

    The only thing holding this draft back was the pick of Montgomery in the third round.  He started three games in his rookie season and was essentially never heard from again.  The pick of Ellison covers for that mistake, however.

3. 1991

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    George Rose/Getty Images

    Head coach George Seifert; general manager Carmen Policy

    • 1.25 Ted Washington, NT, Louisville
    • 2.45 Ricky Watters, RB, Notre Dame
    • 2.53 John Johnson, LB, Clemson
    • 4.95 Mitch Donahue, LB, Wyoming
    • 5.122 Merton Hanks, DB, Iowa
    • 5.137 Harry Boatswain, G, New Haven
    • 6.165 Scott Bowles, T, North Texas
    • 7.193 Sheldon Canley, RB, San Jose State
    • 8.221 Tony Hargain, WR, Oregon
    • 9.248 Louis Riddick, DB, Pittsburgh
    • 10.276 Byron Holdbrooks, DT, Alabama
    • 11.304 Bobby Slaughter, WR, Louisiana Tech
    • 12.332 Cliff Confer, DE, Michigan State

    58 seasons played, 30 seasons started, 13 Pro Bowls, two All-Pros

    Thirteen Pro Bowls is a pretty impressive collection to match; only the ’81 class passes that.  Ronnie Lott accounted for most of those awards, but the ’91 draft splits them among Ted Washington, Ricky Watters and Merton Hanks.

    If you’re just valuing a draft by how much it impacted the 49ers, you’d probably bump this one down a few slots—Washington’s success came after he left in free agency, while Watters, despite helping the 49ers to their most recent Super Bowl win, also did more outside the team than in it.

    We’re not judging the team’s ability to keep players here, though, just its ability to find talent.  Washington and Watters went on to start for 22 years in the NFL, an insane number.

    There were some picks in this draft who may have been disappointing—most notably Mitch Donahue, who never moved past special-teamer in his career—but there are no poor picks here.  Washington, Watters and Hanks each played more than 130 games in their respective careers, and Louis Riddick wasn’t far behind with 94, mostly for Cleveland.

    This was the best draft ever for giving talent to other teams.

2. 2007

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    Paul Sakiuma

    Head coach Mike Nolan; VP of Player Personnel Scot McCloughan

    • 1.11 Patrick Willis, LB, Mississippi
    • 1.28 Joe Staley, T, Central Michigan
    • 3.76 Jason Hill, WR, Washington State
    • 3.97 Ray McDonald, DE, Florida
    • 4.104 Jay Moore, DE, Nebraska
    • 4.126 Dashon Goldson, DB, Washington
    • 4.135 Joe Cohen, DL, Florida
    • 5.147 Tarell Brown, DB, Texas
    • 6.187 Thomas Clayton, RB, Kansas State

    42 seasons played, 26 seasons started, 12 Pro Bowls, six All-Pros

    Give Scot McCloughan his due.  He orchestrated two drafts in the top 10 here and is now helping build the Seattle Seahawks as their senior personnel executive.

    Willis would be enough to propel this draft class into the stratosphere by himself, but add in Staley in the first round, and you have a phenomenal one-two punch at the top of the draft.  Both have been starters since the day they arrived in San Francisco.

    Add in McDonald, Goldson and Brown, all of whom were still starting into the Jim Harbaugh era, and you have a fantastic draft class.

    With five starters around the league in 2014, this class is only going to look better and better as time goes on.  The closest thing to a mistake here would be Jay Moore in the fourth round, as he never saw the field in the NFL.  Even he’s still active in the UFL, however—this is quite the talented class.

1. 1986

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    Bill Kostroun

    Head coach Bill Walsh; general manager John McVay

    • 2.39 Larry Roberts, DE, Alabama
    • 3.56 Tom Rathman, RB, Nebraska
    • 3.64 Tim McKyer, DB, Texas-Arlington
    • 3.76 John Taylor, WR, Delaware State
    • 4.96 Charles Haley, DE, James Madison
    • 4.101 Steve Wallace, T, Auburn
    • 4.102 Kevin Fagan, DE, Miami (FL)
    • 5.131 Pat Miller, LB, Florida
    • 6.162 Don Griffin, DB, Middle Tennessee State
    • 8.230 Jim Popp, TE, Vanderbilt
    • 9.240 Tony Cherry, RB, Oregon
    • 10.267 Elliston Stinson, WR, Rice
    • 10.270 Harold Hallman, LB, Auburn

    85 seasons played, 53 seasons started, eight Pro Bowls, two All-Pros

    No. 1 couldn’t be any other draft.

    I mean, the 49ers were in the middle of a dynasty at this point, and they have this draft class?  That just isn’t fair to the rest of the NFL.

    Haley, Wallace and Griffin are amazing steals; Haley’s going to get into the Hall of Fame one of these seasons, while Wallace and Griffin were mainstays in the starting lineup for nearly a decade.

    Take those three out, and you still have a top-10 draft class, with Rathman, McKyer, Taylor and Fagan.  Those third and fourth rounds might be the best run of drafting in NFL history, bar none.  Six great picks in a row in less than 50 selections.  You just don’t do that.

    And all of this was done without a first-round pick—the 49ers traded down in the draft to acquire more picks and did they ever nail it.  There are no disappointments here—this is as close to a perfect draft as you’ll ever see.

    This isn’t just the 49ers' best draft ever, this has an argument with some of the great Steel Curtain drafts of the ‘70s to be the NFL’s best draft class ever.

    Bill Walsh was pretty good at this.


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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The next 10 in chronological order:

    1967: Frank Nunley, Bob Briggs and Chip Myers help make up for Steve Spurrier’s selection in the first round.

    1969: Gene Washington, Earl Edwards and Bob Hoskins set the team up for Mike Nolan’s era.

    1974: Keith Fahnhorst and Delvin Williams provide two of the only highlights of the late ‘70s.

    1984: Guy McIntyre and Michael Carter are good mid-round selections, dragged down by misses in the first two rounds.

    1988: Pierce Holt and Bill Romanowski revitalize the defense.

    1993: Dana Stubblefield  and Chris Dalman help improve the trenches, while Elvis Grbac goes on to success in Kansas City.

    1994: Bryant Young and Lee Woodall join the team just in time for the last Super Bowl win.

    2000: Julian Peterson gets off to a great start to his career, then fades away.

    2001: Kevan Barlow is the highlight of a draft with no misses.

    2010: NaVorro Bowman says just you wait; this draft might crack the top 10 one of these days.