Re-Grading the San Francisco 49ers' Past 5 Drafts
The 2014 NFL draft is fast approaching. Player analysis is wrapped up and boards are set, which makes this a perfect time for reflection. For the San Francisco 49ers, who have had an interesting history over the past half decade, it's good to see where they've hit and where they've missed.
For this piece, we'll backtrack five years, re-evaluating the picks and providing grades per class.
Grades will be impacted by value according to round—whether it's high or low—as well as position importance. Trade-ups, moving back or sitting tight and having someone fall into their lap will also play a factor. How they maneuver up and down and who they wind up with matters a great deal because that apparent movement is to be credited or not.
There will also be an element of randomness by the author here, as a few of the recent classes are yet to be seen in their entirety.
Rd. 1, Pick 10: Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech
Rd. 3, Pick 74: Glen Coffee, RB, Alabama
Rd. 5, Pick 146: Scott McKillop, LB, Pittsburgh
Rd. 5, Pick 171: Nate Davis, QB, Ball St.
Rd. 6, Pick 184: Bear Pascoe, TE, Fresno St.
Rd. 7, Pick 219: Curtis Taylor, DB, LSU
Rd. 7, Pick 244: Ricky Jean Francois, DT, LSU
The Round 1 pick was a total steal for the 49ers, and frankly, a pick they can hardly be credited for. Georgia quarterback Matt Stafford was always slated to go No. 1 overall to the Detroit Lions, but everybody knows two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree was the finest overall prospect in the draft.
However, a tumultuous offseason for Crabtree—including a foot fracture and character questions—inevitably caused him to fall in the draft.
This was a mistake.
The players picked between No. 2 and No. 9 were Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Andre Smith, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eugene Monroe and B.J. Raji. The shockers that allowed Crab to fall into San Francisco’s lap were when the Oakland Raiders took Heyward-Bey, the Jacksonville Jaguars took Monroe and the Green Bay Packers took Raji.
So, great get by the 49ers, nabbing their franchise receiver, but it was gift-wrapped. A no-brainer. They didn’t trade up or anything.
Their second pick was Alabama tailback Glen Coffee, who was a solid pick. He flashed strong running skills in a short period of time, looking like a solid punch behind Frank Gore. Unfortunately, the unforeseeable happened when Coffee fell out of love with the game and abruptly retired.
Linebacker Scott McKillop, safety Curtis Taylor and quarterback Nate Davis were run-of-the-mill ballplayers, at best, and they didn’t last long with the team.
Two-time All-WAC tight end Bear Pascoe, a tall receiver and a powerful blocker with country strength, looked like he’d be part of the team, but it wasn’t long before he was ousted, too. Pascoe would not make the final cut as a rookie and has been part of the New York Giants ever since.
San Francisco’s last pick of the draft, LSU’s Ricky Jean Francois, was a very pleasant surprise. He played opposite No. 3 overall pick Tyson Jackson with the BCS National Championship-winning Tigers—a game in which Jean Francois was actually named the Defensive MVP.
As a seventh-rounder, he not only made the team but also played out his entire rookie contract with the team, earning the right to be the primary backup from 2009-2012. He is now a starter with the Indianapolis Colts, making $5.5 million per year, according to Spotrac.
Rd. 1, Pick 11: Anthony Davis, T, Rutgers
Rd. 1, Pick 17: Mike Iupati, G, Idaho
Rd. 2, Pick 49: Taylor Mays, S, USC
Rd. 3, Pick 91: NaVorro Bowman, LB, Penn St.
Rd. 6, Pick 173: Anthony Dixon, RB, Mississippi St.
Rd. 6, Pick 182: Nate Byham, TE, Pittsburgh
Rd. 6, Pick 206: Kyle Williams, WR, Arizona St.
Rd. 7, Pick 224: Phillip Adams, CB, South Carolina
This draft had several layers to it, both good and bad (but mostly good).
For those that don’t recall, former general manager Scot McCloughan, now senior personnel executive for the Seattle Seahawks, left the 49ers a month before the 2010 NFL draft, putting it in the hands of rising star Trent Baalke. So this was officially Baalke’s first go-around manning the war room.
Given the circumstances, Baalke hit this one out of the park.
With a pair of first-rounders, he finished reconstructing this offensive line, trading up to No. 11 overall for Rutgers tackle Anthony Davis and taking Idaho grinder Mike Iupati at No. 17. These two were Day 1 starters that have only gotten better over time. Iupati has emerged into the best pulling guard in the NFL, and Davis is a fringe Pro Bowl talent.
The next pick, their second-rounder, was a flop but there was a reason for it.
Picking Southern California’s Taylor Mays was a selection Baalke did not want to make, but head coach Mike Singletary forced his hand, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Safeties Major Wright of Florida, Kam Chancellor of Virginia Tech and Reshad Jones of Georgia were a few names on the board when Mays taken.
Mays was a stiff-hipped defensive back who whiffed in coverage and sometimes in space when going for the knockout hit. Baalke traded him the moment Singletary was released.
Baalke made up for it on the next pick with his handpicked fly-around linebacker from Penn State University. This was the steal and highlight of this draft class. Third-round pick NaVorro Bowman has not missed an All-Pro selection since entering the starting lineup in place of Takeo Spikes.
He is one of the best defensive players in the entire league, rivaling teammate Patrick Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowler.
Finally, running back Anthony Dixon, who was one of the best rushers in the SEC, is the last relevant pick on this list. He became a solid depth player for a while, filling in as a second- and third-string runner, a special teams gunner and even a fullback. Whatever he was asked to do, he did it.
All the while, Dixon was one of the best influences in the locker room.
Nate Byham, Kyle Williams and Phillip Adams will carry the monikers of dishonorable mentions, if they are remembered at all. Two never did enough to stay with the team, while one was around for perhaps longer than he should’ve been.
Williams, the most promising of the bunch, had great speed and quickness but never lived up to his potential. A fumble in the 2011 NFC Championship and a torn ACL sums up his career with the 49ers.
Rd. 1, Pick 7: Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
Rd. 2, Pick 36: Colin Kaepernick, QB, Nevada-Reno
Rd. 3, Pick 80: Chris Culliver, CB, South Carolina
Rd. 4, Pick 115: Kendall Hunter, RB, Oklahoma St.
Rd. 5, Pick 163: Daniel Kilgore, OL, Appalachian St.
Rd. 6, Pick 182: Ronald Johnson, WR, USC
Rd. 6, Pick 190: Colin Jones, S, Texas Christian
Rd. 7, Pick 211: Bruce Miller, DL, Central Florida
Rd. 7, Pick 239: Michael Person, OL, Montana St.
Rd. 7, Pick 250: Curtis Holcomb, DB, Florida A&M
The 49ers crack the “A” range here because they got value in Rounds 1-7, finding multiple starters that exceeded expectations. These picks also came at a number of fundamental positions (quarterback, pass-rusher, cornerback, running back and, for this team, fullback).
Selecting in the top 10, the 49ers stood pat at No. 7 overall drafted Mizzou defensive end Aldon Smith.
On the field, the long-limbed Smith is the best pass-rusher this league has seen in over a decade. He’s got speed, agility, flexibility and straight bull-rushing power. That catalog of moves is not only incredibly potent, but it keeps offensive linemen guessing, which is its own enigma.
There’s not a better player at his position.
The 49ers also found themselves a franchise quarterback, in the second round no less, after five were already off the board. After drudging through the Alex Smith era since 2005 and not having a truly dynamic Super Bowl-caliber quarterback since 1998, San Francisco landed itself none other than Colin Kaepernick.
Kap is a rare breed of quarterback, bringing a deadly long ball and game-breaking ability as a runner if the front seven fails to contain him. He’ll be a $100 million man soon enough, which validates this pick, and thus, this draft class, even further. This was a home run.
Even in the third and the fourth rounds, the Niners hit on two more offensive and defensive playmakers.
Running back Kendall Hunter and cornerback Chris Culliver are exceptional football players who not only contributed right away, but they are also growing into more prominent roles with the team. The same can also be said for fifth-round draft pick Daniel Kilgore, who may be the starting center in 2014.
Safety Colin Jones gets an honorable mention, too. He was a key special teamer in 2011 that was eventually pulled away by the Carolina Panthers.
One of the gems was defensive end Bruce Miller, the sack leader out of Central Florida. This was an ambiguous pick, one the 49ers knew would be a project, but it couldn’t have worked out better. Running backs coach Tom Rathman took Miller on and turned him into one of the NFL’s best fullbacks.
Ronald Johnson, Michael Person and Curtis Holcomb are scratches in this class, but it’s hardly worth fretting over in a group this stocked. Frankly, the one reason this class isn’t an A+ is because of the budding off-the-field concerns with several players. This was a stellar class in what was coach Jim Harbaugh’s first draft.
Rd. 1, Pick 30: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois
Rd. 2, Pick 61: LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
Rd. 4, Pick 117: Joe Looney, OL, Wake Forest
Rd. 5, Pick 165: Darius Fleming, LB, Notre Dame
Rd. 6, Pick 180: Trenton Robinson, FS, Michigan St.
Rd. 6, Pick 199: Jason Slowey, OL, Western Oregon
Rd. 7, Pick 237: Cam Johnson, DE, Virginia
This draft was a complete bomb from beginning to end.
The 49ers got outside their comfort zone, drafting players outside the Southeastern Conference that had been a hot spot for them. They reached for others nobody was high on or had heard of, which reeked of hubris. They also took ones that didn’t fit the scheme.
Let’s start in Round 1 with Illinois wideout A.J. Jenkins, who washed out faster than Rashaun Woods.
Jenkins is a player who had inflated stats in a soft conference in the Big Ten, coming into the pros undersized and with no upper-body strength or balance. He couldn’t get off the jam at the line of scrimmage, and even when he did, he was slipping and sliding all over the field.
The 49ers traded him to the Kansas City Chiefs for another first-round bust, Jonathan Baldwin.
In this writer’s opinion, it was just to get Jenkins out of the building and off the books without cutting him outright. Once Baldwin is gone this year, it will be essentially the same thing as an outright release. They drafted him, dropped him and got nothing for the first-round pick.
Running back LaMichael James always looked like he’d be the player to salvage the ignominy of this draft class.
Unfortunately, the staff never found a way to get James, a former Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman runner-up, involved on offense. It let him fester on the bench, even in 2013, when the team was desperate for playmakers because of injuries. Now, the team is reportedly looking to trade James, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
This pick falls on a miscommunication between the front office and the staff.
Moreover, guard Joe Looney hasn’t played, and his future is uncertain. Linebacker Darius Fleming has had two torn ACLs in two years since joining the team. Safety Trenton Robinson didn’t make the team, nor did offensive lineman Jason Slowey. And then, there’s Cam Johnson, who was auctioned off to the Indianapolis Colts for a seventh-round pick.
Rd. 1, Pick 18: Eric Reid, FS, LSU
Rd. 2, Pick 40: Cornellius Carradine, DE, Florida St.
Rd. 2. Pick 55: Vance McDonald, TE, Rice
Rd. 3, Pick 88: Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
Rd. 4, Pick 128: Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech
Rd. 4, Pick 131: Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
Rd. 5, Pick 157: Quinton Dial, DE, Alabama
Rd. 6, Pick 180: Nick Moody, LB, Florida St.
Rd. 7, Pick 237: B.J. Daniels, QB, South Florida
Rd. 7, Pick 246: Carter Bykowski, OL, Iowa St.
Rd. 7, Pick 252: Marcus Cooper, CB, Rutgers
It is difficult to grade this class because it is the most recent one, and the results are yet to be determined. But at face value, this is a "B+" class with "A+" potential. The 49ers got value in every single round, adding prospective franchise players at positions of need. How much more can you ask?
This draft will rival their 2011 crop, which included a franchise quarterback and a dominant pass-rusher.
First off, the 49ers were in a position where they had to replace the NFL’s reigning All-Pro free safety, Dashon Goldson, who left the organization that offseason for a mega deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They traded up in Round 1 and got their handpicked guy, and he exceed expectations.
LSU’s Eric Reid is the best safety to emerge from this class, playing at a Pro Bowl level in his first year.
He started from Week 1 on, laying the wood (penalty-free) and making plays on the back end (tied for a team-high four interceptions). Reid is another marquee defensive player the 49ers can build around—as if they really need another. But he already looks to have surpassed Goldson and will likely be an NFL superstar.
Next up was Florida State’s Tank Carradine, who was branded a unanimous top-five prospect in 2013.
Unfortunately, the Seminoles pass-rusher suffered a knee injury, which would hurt his stock, dropping him to Round 2. But this was a huge pickup for San Francisco, which took him at No. 40 overall, just to stash him. Now he’s ready, and it's looking to flip him into a hybrid 5-tech in its 3-4 defense.
Running a 4.75, carrying 295 pounds and benching 500 pounds, Carradine is a genetic freak. He will be able to hold the edge, pursue the run and also get after the quarterback.
Tight end Vance McDonald and defensive end Corey Lemonier were also strong draft picks. These are developmental players, providing depth at positions that already have entrenched starters. Each saw playing time in Year 1, flashing here and there, but they bring a lot of promise for the future.
McDonald is a gargantuan receiving target and imposing run-blocker, while Lemonier is one of the best speed-rushers to come out of the 2013 class, bringing an uncanny get-off.
Moving right along, the 49ers got another steal in Louisiana Tech wide receiver Quinton Patton. While he fell for being a bit undersized and with a small body of work in the NCAA, he is one of the best receivers when it comes to making the catch. And isn’t that what a receiver is in a nutshell?
Measurables aside, Patton creates separation with his basketball moves, running everything on the route tree while attacking the ball in flight. He is a natural with starting capability at the next level. He’ll come in as a strong candidate to be the No. 3 WR for the 49ers in 2014.
After acquiring the rights to Carradine, San Francisco stashed two more value picks with South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore and defensive tackle Quinton Dial.
These were two more players with injuries who fell right into the team’s lap, making it a no-brainer when they were still on the board. Lattimore, an absolute star, would’ve been a first-rounder had it not been for his gruesome knee injury in his last game vs. the Tennessee Volunteers.
But this is a high-character player with a world of upside. He’s now healthy and ready to go, which makes this a steal for the 49ers.
Moving on, FSU safety-turned-linebacker Nick Moody was drafted solely to be a special teams ace for this team. After losing 2011 pick Colin Jones and realizing the impact, the 49ers decided to tap that well again. Moody is a player that has the potential to captain the special teams unit for years to come.
South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels and Rutgers cornerback Marcus Cooper are two more strong picks that the 49ers unfortunately couldn’t keep.
Frankly, Daniels looked as sharp as any late-round rookie QB could look in exhibition, but San Francisco decided to let him go and keep Colt McCoy for one reason or another. The mobile passer is now with the Seattle Seahawks, backing up Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson.
The 49ers made another training camp mistake by keeping Nnamdi Asomugha over Cooper as well. Asomugha was released from the team midseason, while Cooper was picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs, becoming a starter and damn good player for them in his first year.
Iowa State tackle Carter Bykowski is the one pick that didn’t really amount to anything, which is not bad at all, considering they got value in Rounds 1-7 and made 11 selections.