San Francisco 49ers' Best and Worst Draft Picks of the Last Decade
The 49ers have stockpiled a total of 11 draft picks for this year's draft, per CBS Sports, and are poised to bolster a team already laden with talent.
In the forward-thinking mindset that teams and fans often focus upon, it would be wise to continue to evaluate the processes by which San Francisco will approach this and future drafts. After all, that is how teams go from being bad to good, good to great, and so on.
But there is the old adage that one cannot know where someone is going until looking back upon where that person has been. It applies to businesses, nations and yes, even sports teams.
In a way, 2014 is a watershed year for the 49ers, marking 10 years since the 49ers' worst season in franchise history—a 2-14 season under then-head coach Dennis Erickson, which is still the worst losing percentage in the storied team's archives.
Since that point, San Francisco has gone through a number of phases. There have been rebuilds, cuts, firings, trades and drafts—all of which have affected the 49ers to a certain extent.
In some areas, those dark years in the recent decade gave rise to the current era of 49ers greatness. When San Francisco struggled, they wound up having higher draft picks. These, in turn, were often used on future stars such as All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, who was selected with the 11th overall pick in 2007.
During that same span however, San Francisco made some very bad moves via the draft. There were a few head scratchers and shakes along with players that never developed as hoped.
In this slideshow, we take a look back into recent 49ers history and determine and evaluate the four best and worst draft picks of the last decade, along with some honorable—or dishonorable—mentions.
To determine the specific criteria, we will evaluate each player in regards to where he was drafted, his expectations and how he developed and impacted the team. Players drafted in the first round but who quickly turned into busts obviously rank high as worst overall picks.
Yet players who may have been drafted in later rounds, but excelled exponentially, deserve credit among the best.
It is a look back at history for the 49ers franchise, so let us take the time to recollect how San Francisco performed in years gone by as we look forward to the 2014 draft.
Dishonorable Mentions: The Worst Picks
While it would be nice to start off this slideshow on a positive note, it is probably best to get some of the bad history out of the way first.
As such, let us take a look at some of the worst picks that did not quite make it to the final four.
I suppose as some consolation, there is some value in not being named as finalists to worst overall picks since 2004.
Glen Coffee, Running Back
Draft: Third round (74th overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft
Yup, even running back Glen Coffee does not quite crack the list of worst draft-day moves the 49ers have made since 2004.
Still, it was a bad decision when the 49ers elected to take Coffee in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft.
In doing so, San Francisco was hoping for a dynamic, explosive back that could take some of the pressure off of the team's No. 1 back Frank Gore.
Instead, Coffee contributed minimally for the 49ers his rookie—and lone—season in the NFL.
The following season, Coffee surprised everyone when he announced his retirement from football during San Francisco's training camp. The details, which are described further by FOX News, suggested that Coffee wanted to pursue a career in the Army.
Hats off for service to the United States, but it was a bust from the 49ers' perspective.
A.J. Jenkins, Wide Receiver
Draft: First round (30th overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft
If there is one major blemish when it comes to the NFL draft during the present Jim Harbaugh/Trent Baalke regime, it is the 2012 first-round selection of Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins.
Fans will recall from their recent memory how Jenkins struggled to even get on the field during training camp—an aspect that carried over to the regular season, in which he was activated for only three games when the 49ers' receiving corps was wearing thin.
Despite numerous occurrences where Harbaugh stated Jenkins was going to be a special player, the young wideout never panned out in a San Francisco uniform.
The team finally gave up on him prior to the 2013 season, sending him to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for another first-round disappointment, Jon Baldwin.
The transaction saves face given that Baldwin still has an outside chance to become something worthwhile in San Francisco. At the very least, it gives the 49ers a better contractual and salary-cap situation given the length of both players' contracts.
Still, it was a pretty bad move from San Francisco's vantage point.
Honorable Mentions: The Best Picks
There are a number of great NFL draft picks the 49ers have made over the last 10 years.
Some of them, like the 2013 first-round selection of safety Eric Reid, may wind up being on a top list years down the road. Hopefully San Francisco's 2014 draft class will include more of the same.
Let's take a brief look at some of the names of 49ers draftees that just miss out on the top four of this list.
Vernon Davis, Tight End
Draft: First round (sixth overall) of the 2006 NFL Draft
When the 49ers selected Vernon Davis with their first pick in the 2006 draft, they were hoping to get an explosive playmaker capable of stretching the field and creating mismatches with his combination of size and speed.
San Francisco has gotten just that.
Davis has turned into one of the elite tight ends in the league, combining all the attributes that made him such an attractive option back in 2006. In addition, Davis has improved his game—most notably in run-blocking.
Now, Davis stands as one of the leaders both on and off the field—elements that help cement him as a 49ers favorite.
Yet the thing that keeps Davis just out of top marks on this list is the fact that it took a few seasons for the young tight end to get going.
Fans may recall that moment where then-head coach Mike Singletary sent Davis back to the locker room in the middle of a game after a confrontation. Before Super Bowl XLVII, Davis thanked Singletary for making the controversial move (h/t Josh Alper of NBC Sports).
Since then, Davis has emerged as one of the best tight ends in the game.
Mike Iupati, Left Guard
Draft: First round (17th overall) of the 2010 NFL Draft
Much like another member of the O-line on this list, guard Mike Iupati has cemented his reputation as being one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL, let alone the 49ers.
One of his biggest marks is his durability—starting all but four games for San Francisco during his four-year career.
As a member of one of the better 49ers draft classes in recent memory, Iupati became known as an excellent run-blocker, which gave rise to the critical component of San Francisco's offense.
Back-to-back Pro Bowl nominations back up this claim.
Iupati is hard to overlook when it comes to selecting the best draft picks utilized by the 49ers in the last 10 years. He may not be as noteworthy when it comes to comparing him with other San Francisco playmakers, but he is no less important.
Aldon Smith, Outside Linebacker
Draft: First round (seventh overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft
The 2011 draft class is beginning to emerge as one of the better classes in recent 49ers memory.
This is the class that included quarterback Colin Kaepernick, cornerback Chris Culliver, running back Kendall Hunter, fullback Bruce Miller and linebacker Aldon Smith, whom the 49ers selected with their first pick.
There is no questioning the awesome prowess Smith possesses on the field. His 14 sacks during his rookie campaign suggested something special. He backed it up with 19.5 the following season en route to a Pro Bowl and All-Pro nomination.
Yet one cannot bring up Smith at this stage without overlooking the recent off-the-field issues he has encountered during his brief NFL career.
These will unquestionably have continued consequences as Smith and the 49ers move forward. As a result, Smith does not crack the top four picks.
Chilo Rachal: Fourth-Worst Pick Since 2004
Chilo Rachal, Right Guard
Draft: Second round (39th overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft
From a Pro Bowl offensive lineman to a bust, let us shift our attention to the fourth-worst pick the 49ers have made since 2004, right guard Chilo Rachal.
If the 49ers hit a home run with their 2007 draft class, 2008 was a flop.
The first pick utilized by San Francisco was spent on defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer—don't worry, we will get to him later.
In the second round, then-general manager Scot McCloughan elected to go with USC offensive lineman Chilo Rachal. Aside from wide receiver Josh Morgan—selected in the sixth round—almost none of the 49ers draftees made notable impact.
As a result, the 2008 draft class made the list of worst 49ers draft classes of the last ten years per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
With Rachal, the 49ers were hoping that they had landed their future guard for the next decade. Nothing of the sort turned out.
He did start 15 games in 2009 and 14 the year later. Entering 2011, Rachal made efforts to control his weight as he entered competition with Adam Snyder at right guard, per Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com.
By Week 3 of the 2011 season, Snyder had won the starting job and Rachal appeared destined for the scrap heap.
To state things simply, Rachal never found a way to gel with San Francisco's budding offensive line. After the change in leadership in the 2011 season, the 49ers seemed perfectly content to move past Rachal and let some of the other members of the offensive line develop.
That decision worked out well for the 49ers, but not so much for Rachal.
The promising second-round draftee never accounted to much at the NFL level, especially when the 49ers were trying to gain notoriety on offense.
Considering the importance of an offensive line in the NFL, one has to look at this pick as being one of the worst in recent 49ers memory.
After Vernon Davis' 39-yard catch, 49ers burn a timeout because Chilo Rachal was late getting onto the field as 49ers go w/ power formation.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) September 25, 2011
Joe Staley: Fourth-Best Pick Since 2004
Joe Staley, Offensive Tackle
Draft: First round (28th overall) of the 2007 NFL Draft
Finally, it's time to get into the top four-best picks the 49ers have made since 2004.
We kick off this list with San Francisco's first-round selection of offensive tackle Joe Staley out of Central Michigan.
Fans can remember this point in 49ers history. Mike Nolan was still head coach of a team trying to turn its fortunes around. While the year-end results were not particularly inspiring, one cannot overlook the importance of the draft San Francisco enjoyed this year.
General manager Scot McCloughan spent the first overall pick on linebacker Patrick Willis. Later in the round came Staley.
San Francisco later drafted defensive end Ray McDonald in the third round before getting their hands on defensive backs Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown in Rounds 4 and 5, respectively.
In hindsight, this was a very good draft class for the 49ers. Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area ranks the 2010 draft class as the best in 49ers history.
Staley is one of the highlighted members who still impact what the team is capable of doing today.
A three-time Pro Bowler, Staley has been the epitome of toughness and durability on the field. In fact, he may as well be regarded as one of the best offensive linemen in 49ers history.
During his seven-year career, Staley has logged 98 starts at tackle and has emerged as one of the leaders of San Francisco's vaunted offensive line.
Matt Michelini of ChatSports.com sums up how important Staley has been to the 49ers during his tenure:
Another first round pick that the 49ers hit a home run on in the NFL draft is offensive tackle Joe Staley. More importantly, Staley has been able to stay healthy ever since the 49ers emergence as an elite team a couple years ago. Staley has been recognized by the NFL by being elected to the Pro Bowl for the third year in a row. The 49ers offense has greatly benefited from the presence of Staley, whether in the running game or passing game. He does a lot of the dirty work for the 49ers that is never recognized in the box score, which is why he one of the most popular 49ers players.
Staley earns high marks on this list over some other notables because of his work in the trenches. Remember, it all starts up front with a good offensive line.
Additionally, Staley's entire career thus far has been positive. Unlike tight end Vernon Davis for example—who took a few seasons to find his groove—Staley has been a stalwart presence on offense.
For that, he deserves commendation.
Taylor Mays: Third-Worst Pick Since 2004
Taylor Mays, Strong Safety
Draft: Second round (49th overall) of the 2010 NFL Draft
Perhaps the third-worst pick of the 49ers since the 2004 NFL draft is a direct reflection of the coaching ineptitude that befuddled then-head coach Mike Singletary during his span at the helm in San Francisco.
Selecting USC safety Taylor Mays in the second round was a move that had Singletary written all over it.
I remember listening to a press conference on San Francisco's flagship station, KNBR, shortly after the draft and listening to Singletary state how "that kid can play."
Not so fast.
On the positive side of things, the 49ers tabbed two bona fide studs with two first-round picks ahead of Mays—offensive linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. They were then able to grab linebacker NaVorro Bowman in the third round.
When we take into consideration the first four picks of this draft and what each player has done for the 49ers, one would probably think San Francisco drafted admirably well.
Even Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, citing Singletary's influence on the draft class, points out that this draft was one of the better ones in 49ers history.
Yet Mays is one of the stains on what turned out to be an important draft for San Francisco.
Mays started six games for the 49ers in 2010 and logged a total of 26 tackles and two pass deflections.
According to Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com—who also lists Mays high on his list of worst 49ers draft choices—Mays had tantalizing size and speed for the position, but no instincts.
Combine that with the new 49ers regime that took over in 2011, and Mays' days in San Francisco were numbered.
The team made a multitude of efforts to trade Mays before the 2011 season, as reported by Michael David Smith of NBC Sports, eventually finding his way to the Cincinnati Bengals in exchange for a seventh-round pick.
According to Lynch, Mays never seemed to earn the recognition from new head coach Jim Harbaugh, who ultimately pushed him down the depth chart before the trade occurred.
Mays has started in only four games since.
Let's do the math on this bad 49ers investment—San Francisco spent a second-round pick (No. 49 overall) on a safety to play in only 16 games, six of which were starts. He was then dealt for a seventh-round pick.
No matter how one slices it, the numbers do not add up favorably.
Thankfully, the next high-ranked safety the 49ers drafted turned out to be Eric Reid. That selection has worked out well.
NaVorro Bowman: Third-Best Pick Since 2004
NaVorro Bowman, Inside Linebacker
Draft: Third round (91st overall) of the 2010 NFL Draft
The 49ers struck gold when they selected Penn State linebacker NaVorro Bowman with the 91st overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
Like most other 49ers greats on this current franchise, fans need no introduction to the three-time First-Team All-Pro. They know how great he is and what the tandem of Bowman and Willis behind the defensive line means to San Francisco's defense.
More on Willis later.
Bowman has emerged as a top-10 talent that the 49ers stole in the third round. That alone makes San Francisco's selection of him a worthy pick on this list.
In 2013, he cemented his reputation as perhaps the best linebacker on the 49ers, perhaps even surpassing Willis.
This argument has been made by multiple people, including ESPN's Jeffri Chadiha, who wrote last October:
[Bowman] has been overshadowed at times and overlooked far too often because of San Francisco's star power on defense. But as the 49ers work through their issues, he's quickly changing the debate about who the best linebacker in football really is. Bowman's exceptional teammate, Willis, has held that title over the last few years, but Bowman has made a strong case to be considered even better.
When Willis missed time in 2013 due to injury, it was Bowman who stepped up as the primary linebacker on San Francisco's defense.
Upon Willis' return, the tandem enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best inside linebacker groups in the NFL—an element that lasted until Bowman's gruesome knee injury suffered in the NFC Championship against the Seattle Seahawks.
Bowman's body of work may be smaller than that of Willis. Yet as Willis ages, there is no doubting that Bowman's future is bright in San Francisco.
He is one of the primary reasons the 49ers' defense has ranked so high in each of the last three seasons.
If Bowman continues to produce as the rate he has shown so far, he may challenge for the top spot on all-time 49ers draft picks since 2004. Still, ranking as the third best is quite an accomplishment given his relatively short tenure in San Francisco.
49ers B/R: NaVorro Bowman Has Surpassed Patrick Willis as NFL's Best Linebacker http://t.co/ueig1DbrFc— FLGM (@FLGM01) September 30, 2013
Kentwan Balmer: Second-Worst Pick Since 2004
Kentwan Balmer, Defensive Tackle
If the 49ers scored big with their first-round pick in 2007, they scored a complete bust the following year in 2008 when they drafted defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer out of North Carolina with the 29th overall pick.
At this point in the 49ers' franchise, the defense was starting to get better and was showing signs of what would eventually become a bulwark of the current phase of greatness.
Balmer was supposed to be a significant contributor to that element, but he never turned into anything of the sort.
Some may state that moving him from a defensive tackle to end may have thwarted his rookie season to an extent, but Balmer's problems were far deeper than that.
Fellow Bleacher Report featured columnist Dan Mori speaks on some of the things that hindered Balmer's development by writing:
During his time with the 49ers, Balmer never started a game and was often criticized for his poor work ethic. Balmer was 6'5" and 298 pounds, a good size for a defensive lineman. His questionable work ethic and bad attitude led the 49ers to simply release their round-one pick from just two years earlier.
So much for a return on a big investment.
Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com also points out how Balmer's frustration with playing time also drove a wedge between him and the 49ers, eventually going AWOL from training camp.
As a result, San Francisco parted ways with their former first-round draft pick.
Balmer attempted to resurrect his career, first with the Seattle Seahawks and then with the Washington Redskins.
Yet Balmer pulled a similar move in Washington, leaving training camp without so much as a word, per Josh Alper of NBC Sports.
So much for a promising career.
Selecting Balmer in the first round turned out to be a disaster for the 49ers, even if the team's defense was starting to turn things around. It is hard to fathom just how that pick could have been utilized had San Francisco elected to look elsewhere.
As a result, Balmer gets the nod as the second-worst draft choice for the 49ers since 2004.
Frank Gore: Second-Best Pick Since 2004
Frank Gore, Running Back
There are only a few remaining holdovers from the dark days of San Francisco's most recent ineptitude.
One such player makes it onto our list as the second-best pick since 2004—running back Frank Gore.
49ers fans can remember how the team got their hands on Gore in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft, largely in part because Gore came with injury concerns suffered in his collegiate days at the University of Miami.
At the time, those fans probably did not realize that Gore was much more of a first-round talent.
Looking back, there is no questioning that San Francisco scored big here.
Fans will also recall how Gore has set a number of franchise records during his nine-year career with the 49ers. The five-time Pro Bowler now owns the record for all-time rushing yards with the 49ers—a number that will continue to grow in 2014.
Also during that recollection will be just how bad the 49ers were during much of Gore's career.
Remember that time when San Francisco's offense essentially had one weapon? Remember who it was?
Yeah, it was Gore.
During that rough span, Gore emerged as a leader of the team and one who wanted to do whatever it took to win. His attitude and personality stood hand-in-hand with what he was able to do on the field.
Former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary—not a great head coach, but someone who knows a thing about attitude and toughness—heralded Gore via ESPN after the running back suffered a hip injury in 2010:
It is unfortunate that we had to place Frank on [injured reserve]. He is not only a great football player, but a tremendous leader. He plays with such passion and desire, two traits that will serve him well as he recovers from the injury. Frank is a big part of what we do—heart, soul, everything he brings is what you want.
The head coach may have changed, but Gore's accolades remain the same.
With Gore's career winding down, it is time to look back on what he has meant to this franchise. There is no overlooking the numbers he put up, especially when considering how inept San Francisco's offense was during that span.
So is Gore a Hall of Famer?
Al Sacco of Rant Sports writes that Gore's numbers still fall short of what should be expected in Canton, yet he recognizes that Gore's contributions are nothing short of exemplary.
Gore may still be able to play for a couple of more seasons, hopefully reaching those numbers Sacco suggests. Whether or not Gore makes the cut shall be determined—an aspect that places him just outside the top spot for 49ers' best draft picks since 2004.
Still, considering this former third-round pick has done so much for this franchise, we have to include him high on this list.
Rashaun Woods: Worst Pick Since 2004
Rashaun Woods, Wide Receiver
Draft: First round (31st overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft
If the 2004 49ers season was the worst in franchise history, the team's start to the 2004 NFL draft has to make it to the top (or bottom) of the list of best/worst picks in the last decade. It just has to, right?
Of course it does.
Then-general manager Terry Donahue's selection of wide receiver Rashaun Woods in the first round of the 2004 draft goes down as the worst pick in the last 10 years. In fact, it makes the 2012 selection of A.J. Jenkins seem almost acceptable if one wants to look at it that way.
Yes, we can argue that the entire 49ers franchise at the time was a mess. That certainly had some effect on the draft. It is also hard to argue against San Francisco's need for dynamic playmakers after the team-wide purges that had taken place that year.
Woods was one of those fringe first rounders who impressed the 49ers with his stats at Oklahoma State.
Yet the 49ers got nothing of that sort when he eventually took the field his rookie season.
In total, Woods recorded a mere seven receptions in his lone active season with San Francisco before being off the team completely in 2006.
So much for a first round investment.
Steve Busichio of Niners Nation writes an excellent description of all the things that went wrong with the 49ers in the 2004 draft, summing it up with Woods' selection. He writes:
Terry Donahue. That’s what went wrong. His nail in the coffin of this draft is clearly Rashaun Woods. There were some who felt that Woods wasn't a first round talent and, as Donahue and fans found out, those concerns shone true. A dismal rookie campaign was followed up by a year wiped out by injury, and that was it for Woods.
Donahue's draft class also made Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area's list as the No. 1 worst draft class in the past 10 years. Maiocco's primary reason?
You guessed it—Woods.
Had Woods come to a 49ers team that was laden with talent—much like Jenkins in 2012—the botched draft pick may not have been as big of a deal.
But the 49ers badly needed contributors that season, and they were hoping to get something, anything out of Woods.
Falling short is putting things lightly.
There is little questioning the notion Woods was the worst pick since 2004. At least he scores top marks in this facet, but it is not a list one wants to be on.
Patrick Willis: Best Pick Since 2004
Patrick Willis, Inside Linebacker
Draft: First round (11th overall) of the 2007 NFL Draft
Here it is—the best of the best in the last 10 years of 49ers' draft history.
Few fans would disagree that All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis should earn the accolade of being San Francisco's best draft pick since 2004.
Selected by the 49ers with the 11th overall pick in 2007, Patrick Willis has done nothing short of guaranteeing his spot in the team's storied history.
In his rookie season, Willis earned All-Pro accolades—a nomination he has received a total of five times now over his seven-year career. He has also made the Pro Bowl in each of his seasons, none of which he has missed more than three games.
I could go on about what Willis has done for the 49ers during his tenure here, but that would be redundant. San Francisco fans know all too well what he means to this franchise.
More importantly, we should stress the intangibles behind Willis' game.
Willis' first few seasons with the 49ers marked another rough spot in the team's recent history. Yet Willis never emerged as a problem on the field or in the locker room, but instead he developed as the defensive leader on a team that was trying to turn its fortunes around.
His work ethic, attitude and mentality signify everything a team would want to have on and off the field.
In case you missed it, Willis has been, and continues to be, a force on the field with which to reckoned.
Matt Michelini of ChatSports.com sums up just what Willis has meant to the 49ers in his recollection of best picks of the last decade by writing:
Ever since Willis was drafted by the 49ers, he has been recognized as one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Willis has been voted to the Pro Bowl every year of his career and also won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007. These are extraordinary accomplishments that only Hall of Famers are able to achieve, which is where Willis will end up some day. Every season, Willis can be penciled in as one of the leading tacklers in the NFL, as well as being on the Pro Bowl roster.
It is hard to argue that any other player on the 49ers roster during the last 10 years has had more to do with the turnaround this team has enjoyed since.
As he continues his career in San Francisco, it is likely that Willis will hold onto the top 49ers draft choice since 2004 for a very long time.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.