San Francisco 49ers: Grading the 2004 NFL Draft 10 Years Later
A few weeks ago, we looked at and regraded the San Francisco 49ers’ 2009 NFL draft. The logic was sound enough; after five years, you have enough data to really tell if a player is a bust or not and whether or not his selection was justified.
However, while five years is plenty of time to get some perspective and separate the wheat from the chaff, it’s not always the end-all and be-all of evaluating a player. Take Alex Smith, for example. Five years after he was drafted, he was having trouble beating out Shaun Hill. Now, he’s a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.
So, with still over two weeks to go before the 2014 NFL draft, let’s go back in time a full decade to re-look at the 49ers’ 2004 draft class.
A decade ago, the 49ers were in a very different place than they are today. The 2003 season was a season of turmoil. The first under Dennis Erickson, it saw the 49ers stumble to a 7-9 record after making the playoffs in the previous two seasons. The offseason saw an exodus of talent as well, including starting quarterback Jeff Garcia and talented if mercurial receiver Terrell Owens.
This left Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue with a difficult situation to work their way out of. They would need to nail the 2004 draft in order to avoid a massive collapse and talent exodus. Could they do it? Let’s go pick-by-pick and see how the 49ers’ brain trust tried to salvage a crumbling team a decade ago.
1st Round (No. 31 Overall): Rashaun Woods, WR, Oklahoma State
Just like in 2009, the 49ers decided to use their first-round pick on a highly touted receiver.
The team was actually slated to draft at No. 16 but traded down first with the Philadelphia Eagles and then with the Carolina Panthers, picking up an extra pick in both the second and fourth rounds. It made a lot of sense for a team looking for a quick influx of young talent.
Woods was a certain first-round pick according to most evaluators: a big, fast, physical receiver who would start from Day 1 across from Brandon Lloyd.
Well, that never happened. Not only did Woods never become a starter, he barely even saw an NFL field. He ended his career with seven receptions for 160 yards, a complete washout bust.
Nearly any other player in the draft would have been a better selection. Chris Snee went three picks later to the Giants, and he would have filled the hole made by the departing Ron Stone. Karlos Dansby and Daryl Smith also went shortly afterward; both would been an immediate upgrade to the linebacking corps.
He’s not the worst pick the 49ers have ever made—remember, the 49ers have drafted the likes of Jim Druckenmiller and Reggie McGrew in the first round before—but they haven’t made a worse pick since 2004.
Grade: 0 out of 10
2nd Round (No. 46 Overall): Justin Smiley, G, Alabama
Smiley was an athletic guard who ran a 4.9 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. He was going to come in to replace Ron Stone, learning pass protection on the fly. He was one of the top two guard prospects in the draft and should have filled an immediate hole on the offensive line. It was a great pick and added talent to a position of need.
Smiley ended up starting for five seasons with the 49ers and Dolphins. Was he ever a truly great guard? No, he wasn’t, but he was a consistent starter and contributor. He certainly provided more value than your average player found in the middle of the second round.
There were other options here who might have been slightly better. Had the 49ers gone with Chris Snee with the first pick, they could have added receiver Devery Henderson here, who went to the Saints four picks later. That would have helped the receiving issue. Madieu Williams, the defensive back who went to Cincinnati at pick No. 56, would have been another name to take.
Smiley did just fine. It wasn’t a pick knocked out of the park, but you’ll take a solid pick like this every time.
Grade: 8 out of 10
2nd Round (No. 58 Overall): Shawntae Spencer, DB, Pittsburgh
With the 49ers desperately needing to find a nickel cornerback in the draft, they went with the speedy Spencer, who put up a 4.4 40-yard dash at the combine. Although he was a three-year starter at Pitt, he saw his draft stock truly rise during the predraft workouts, as his workout numbers turned scouts’ heads.
The 49ers planned to slot him in behind Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph to solve their secondary issues.
Spencer was actually still on an NFL roster last season, although he didn’t appear in any games in 2013. That speaks to his longevity, if not his peak. Spencer ended up starting five seasons for the 49ers, with 11 interceptions and 307 tackles to his name.
Spencer’s been a useful player in his career, though he’s mostly been a starter when no better options were available. Sean Jones, who went right after Spencer, has been a better defensive back, but the big picks the 49ers missed out on here were Darnell Dockett, who went No. 64 to Arizona, and Nick Hardwick, who went No. 66 to San Diego.
Spencer’s fine for a second-round pick; if the team had been good enough to only use him as a nickel corner, he would have been fantastic.
Grade: 7 out of 10
3rd Round (No. 77 Overall): Derrick Hamilton, WR, Clemson
When losing a stud receiver like Terrell Owens, it makes sense to double-down on the position. After all, you need someone to develop to replace him, and more draft picks means a better shot at having that happen. Perfectly logical, right?
Well, if anything, Hamilton was worse than Woods. He appeared in two NFL games and never caught a pass. Before his second season, he tore a ligament in his left knee, missing the year. Before his third season, he injured his hamstring, and the team decided enough was enough and released him.
He bounced around on the practice squad of a few teams for a few more years but never accomplished anything of note in the NFL.
With the very next pick, the Chicago Bears took receiver Bernard Berrian, who had an eight-year career in the NFL. Washington also found a better pass-catcher in tight end Chris Cooley, who went No. 81. There were also good offensive line possibilities here with Stephen Peterman and Sean Locklear.
Two attempts at replacing Owens and two swings-and-misses. Hamilton’s not a “bust” simply because I don’t think a third-round selection can ever be truly labeled as such. It was definitely a poor pick, however.
Grade: 0 out of 10
4th Round (No. 104 Overall): Isaac Sopoaga, DT, Hawaii
This is more like it.
ESPN called Sopoaga the “steal of the draft” at the time as a potential replacement for Bryant Young in the long-term. One of the few big beefy defensive linemen available, he could fit in at either a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense, giving the 49ers flexibility.
Sopoaga may not have quite been the steal of the draft in retrospect—that honor probably goes to Jared Allen, also taken in the fourth round. He’s still one of the top 25 or so picks in the entire draft, a great value selection this low. He missed the entire 2004 season with injuries but came back strong, and by 2008 he was a regular starter on the defensive line.
He started five seasons in San Francisco and then again last year in Philadelphia, playing both defensive end and nose tackle. He’s played 139 games in his NFL career and was there as the 49ers defense transitioned into something truly fearsome.
You could argue, given the loss of Terrell Owens, that taking Jerricho Cotchery, who went No. 108 to the Jets, would have been better. That’s picking nits to a certain extent, however. Sopoaga would have been a very good pick no matter where in the draft they got him. Getting him this low makes it a fantastic selection.
Grade: 10 out of 10
4th Round (No. 127 Overall): Richard Seigler, LB, Oregon State
The 49ers continued to attempt to improve their front seven by taking Seigler with their next pick. Seigler was an All-American stud at Oregon State who had played for Dennis Erickson at the college level. It made sense the coach would take his old college player when he was still available here.
And then Seigler reached the NFL and landed with a resounding thud. He played in nine games over his career, racking up one tackle with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006. He did end up earning a Super Bowl ring with Pittsburgh but rarely saw the field.
If the 49ers had wanted to improve their front seven, Antonio Smith went to the Cardinals with pick No. 135; he was still active last season. They could have also had defensive back Gibril Wilson (No. 136 to the Giants) or guard Jacob Bell (No. 138 to the Titans)—really, any player would have been better than Seigler, who was a complete nonentity.
Grade: 0 out of 10
6th Round (No. 188 Overall): Andy Lee, P, Pittsburgh
On principle, I hate taking specialists in the draft. You can always find serviceable kickers and punters among the ranks of the undrafted free agents. Why on earth would you waste valuable draft capital taking a punter who’s going to play maybe seven snaps a game when you could get a reserve guard or something?
That logic works 99 times out of 100, but the 100th time you get a player like Andy Lee. Arguably the class of the league at the punting position, Lee’s a three-time All-Pro and the best punter in 49ers' history.
Lee stands out as the best player in this part of the draft by far, and he’s been a staple on the 49ers’ roster ever since. I still don’t like drafting punters, but I suppose I can make an exception for one as great as Lee has been.
Grade: 10 out of 10
6th Round (No. 198 Overall): Keith Lewis, DB, Oregon
Lewis was drafted as depth, scheduled to battle with Dwaine Carpenter to backup Zack Bronson at the free safety slot. He also was expected to be a valuable contributor on special teams—a depth pick rather than someone expected to light up the secondary.
Lewis actually started 13 games in his career, mostly in 2006. He played for five seasons, mostly as a reserve, ending up with three interceptions and 112 tackles over the course of his career.
That’s actually pretty good for someone drafted this low. Most sixth-round picks are out of the league within a year or two; Lewis stuck around and contributed for multiple seasons. Obviously he’s not as talented as some of the other players taken earlier in the draft, but this is more than a decent outcome for someone drafted this low.
There were some better options in hindsight. Shane Olivea’s career started off strongly but then fell apart thanks to missed drug tests. Patrick Crayton had a longer if less-stellar career as a receiver with the Cowboys.
Still, considering some of the misses in earlier rounds, you have to consider this one of the better selections in the 2004 draft.
Grade: 8 out of 10
7th Round (No. 217 Overall): Cody Pickett, QB, Washington
The incumbent quarterback for the 2004 49ers was Tim Rattay, while the Alex Smith experience was still a draft away. With Jeff Garcia out of the picture, it made sense to grab another option to see who would be the 49ers' quarterback of the future.
Pickett actually started two games for the 49ers in 2005 as part of the Alex Smith-Tim Rattay-Ken Dorsey-Cody Pickett shuffle on one of the worst teams in the history of the NFL. I remember Pickett more, however, for playing on special teams as well as serving as a safety and receiver in practice.
I actually have rather fond memories of Pickett in 2005 in a sort of gallows-humor sort of way. He only competed 40 percent of his passes, so he wasn’t exactly NFL-caliber, but I remember him lining up as a gunner on kickoffs, looking for some way to contribute to the team.
Obviously, there were better options than Pickett available. Derrick Ward had a decent career as a running back; he went No. 235 to the Giants. Had the 49ers missed on Andy Lee, they could have taken punter Donnie Jones here; he became a Seahawk at No. 224.
Still, I can’t blame the 49ers for trying to find another option at quarterback considering the wilderness they went through after Jeff Garcia left the club.
Grade: 5 out of 10
7th Round (No. 226 Overall): Christian Ferrara, DT, Syracuse
Ferrara was depth, pure and simple. He might have been pushed to be the fourth defensive tackle on the squad, but even that seemed unlikely when drafted.
Indeed, Ferrara never made the team, but we’re talking about the No. 226 overall pick here. It’s not exactly a great slam on the 49ers’ drafting ability for someone taken this low to not work out, and the 49ers did need more defensive line depth. So, even though Ferrara never made the squad, it’s not worth a zero grade.
They could have added players who actually played in the NFL, however, so it’s not a great grade. Eugene Amano went No. 239 to the Titans; he played center through 2012. You also had Scott Wells, a steal at No. 251. He made a Pro Bowl with the Packers and has started 119 games through his career.
You can’t expect seventh-round picks to become Scott Wells, but it would have been nice.
Grade: 3 out of 10 for picking someone at the right position
What was considered a very solid draft at the time is, in retrospect, a hot mess. You have one of the bigger draft busts in 49ers history with Rashaun Woods in the first round. You have another very poor selection with Derrick Hamilton in the third—this was not a good draft at picking wide receivers. Richard Seigler, Cody Pickett and Christian Ferrara are all disappointing as well.
On the other hand, Isaac Sopoaga was an excellent pick, a true steal at No. 104. Andy Lee was another very good pick who is still contributing to the team today. Both of the second-round selections, Shawntae Spencer and Justin Smiley, were good picks too.
All in all, it’s not a good draft—you can’t miss with your first pick as bad as they did and have it be good. It’s not a total write-off, but you can see why the team plummeted to 2-14 the very next year and Dennis Erickson was fired.
With the benefit of hindsight, of course, you can put together a much better draft. Had the 49ers been able to look 10 years down the road, they could have ended up with this class:
- 1.31—G Chris Snee, Boston College
- 2.46—DT Darnell Dockett, Florida State
- 2.58—C Nick Hardwick, Purdue
- 3.77—QB Matt Schaub, Virginia
- 4.104—DE Jared Allen, Idaho State
- 4.127—G Jake Scott, Idaho
- 6.188—T Shane Olivea, Ohio State
- 6.198—WR Patrick Crayton, NW Oklahoma State
- 7.217—C Eugene Amano, SE Missouri State
- 7.226—G Scott Wells, Tennessee
Obviously, that draft’s way too heavy on the offensive line, but 2004 was a great year for linemen. Give that line to rookie quarterback Matt Schaub with Jared Allen and Darnell Dockett lining up next to Bryant Young on the defensive line, and you have a playoff team right off the bat.
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