Few college players are considered solid locks to play well and long in the NFL. No finer example than the second pick in the entire 1998 draft, Ryan Leaf, who proves the point that drafting is a guessing game. Personnel directors, GMs and coaches drooled over Leaf—his height, his arm, his moxy. And he flopped as hard as anyone could flop. Of course, the guy taken in front of him, Peyton Manning, is on his way to Canton.
That is why instant analysis of drafts is so meaningless. The draft is a chance to rejuvenate, rebuild, restock and even explore. It is not, however, something that can be judged within a day, a week or even a year.
The benefits of a good draft emanate for years as a core of quality players provide stability and clarity. It’s easier to see a team’s needs and weaknesses when contrasted against successful elements. Bad drafts can hasten an organization’s decline because below-standard players can even make good players look bad, and thus confuse exactly what the team needs.
Here’s a look at four drafts for the Niners over the last 20 years. They’re spaced five years apart to show the effect each class had on the organization.
Status: The Niners, led by George Seifert, were still considered among the elite two or three teams in the NFL. (The dreaded Cowboys, however, were rebuilding fast.) The draft then consisted of 12 rounds, and the Niners had 13 picks. Only four—DT Ted Washington (first round), RB Ricky Watters (second), S Merton Hanks and OT Harry Boatswain (both fifth)—had a lasting impact.
Grade: C. Washington was expected to be a key anchor in the Niner defense, but was traded in '94 to Denver. The Niners went on to win th4 Super Bowl that year. Watters developed into an excellent runner and receiver, on his best days reincarnating Roger Craig, only faster. Hanks was a Pro Bowl player and Boatswain was competent.
Do Over: Erik Williams out of small Central State in Ohio was the 70th player taken by Cowboys and developed into one of the league’s best offensive tackles.
Overall Impact: Helped the Niners stay atop the league. The failure of the ’92 draft, including Dana Hall, Amp Lee and Brian Bollinger, among others, stands out in glaring contrast.
Status: Two years after their last Super Bowl, the aging Niners needed to replenish their secondary, linebackers and receivers (after all, Jerry Rice was going into his 12th year). They had no first-round selection, but had seven picks overall in the seven-round draft. Terrell Owens came in the third round after DE Israel Ifeanyi in the second. Others picked that day include Daryl Price of Colorado, Iheany Uwaezuikoe from Cal, and the Manuel twins, Sam and Sean Manuel from New Mexico State.
Grade C-. Ifeanyi turned out to be a bust and others were non-factors except.Owens, who turned into one of the league’s elite receivers. But he also infected the team with negative attitude. The 1998 playoff win over Green Bay, which coming into the game had defeated the Niners five straight times, serves as a perfect synopsis. He made the winning catch at game’s end (thanks to a perfect throw from Steve Young) but he also had dropped five passes prior to that point. In other words, if he hangs onto those throws there probably is no need for last-minute heroics.
Do Over: Tedy Bruschi was there in the second round, though he came out of Arizona as a nose tackle, not linebacker. LB Donny Edwards lasted until early in the fourth round.
Overall Impact: Owens appeared to be the next generation of Rice, but his me-first attitude eventually tore the franchise apart. Of course, owner Eddie DeBartolo’s legal troubles had more to do with that fact.
Status: The Niners were coming off 4-12 and 6-10 seasons. Young had retired. Fans were angry. They needed to rejuvenate but still had to pay off “dead-money” contracts to players like Young and Brent Jones, thus limiting their free agent options. DE Andre Carter, LB Jamie Winborn, RB Kevan Barlow, WR Cedrick Wilson and CB Rashan Holman were solid picks. The prize came in the seventh as Yale TE Eric Johnson had some of the sweetest hands in the league.
Grade B-: It was a solid class, but Carter never developed into a QB-trashing threat. Winborn, Barlow and Wilson were competent, though not standouts. Johnson was a treat.
Do Over: WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh lasted until the seventh round.
Overall Impact: Barlow, Winborn and Wilson all contributed to a 12-4 season that ended in part because QB Jeff Garcia didn’t have the arm strength to reach a streaking Owens down the sideline in the playoff loss to the (who else?) Packers. Coach Steve Marriucci was fired a year later.
Status: The Niners were coming off a 7-9 season that showed glimmers of promise. Second-year coach Mike Nolan had re-tooled the defense and had a lot of say in the big decision in 2005 to make Alex Smith the first player taken in that year’s draft. TE Vernon Davis and LB Manny Lawson came in the first rounds and have had solid careers, Davis being arguably the best TE in the league. WR Michael Robinson in the fourth round, LB Parys Haralson in the fifth and TE Delanie Walker in the sixth all have proven to be above-grade NFL contributors.
Grade A-: Davis is one of the league’s best players, and Lawson—despite opinions that he doesn’t rush the passer well—is one of the league’s better cover linebackers. Haralson has developed into a solid player, and Walker would start on many other teams. Robinson’s departure was more about roster space than talent.
Do Over: Devan Hester was taken in the second round.
Overall Impact: This is the core of the today’s team, and building upon fast it will account for the success of new Coach Jim Harbaugh