The goal of every draft is to get appropriate value out of every player. As they say to players who feel they have been overlooked in the draft, it’s not where you were taken, but what value you return.
Perform well, and the money will come. And nothing is more endearing to fans—or to the organization for that matter—than a player taken late in the draft or signed as a free agent who then turns into a star.
In contrast, nothing increases the discontent of fans and the organization more than a player getting Top 10 money and playing like a third-rounder (are you paying attention Michael Crabtree?)
And nothing hurts a franchise more than spending a great deal of money on a player at a critical position like left tackle and have that player turn into an outright bust (Kwame Harris, you have the right to remain silent….)
Melding the 75 to 80 candidates who head to training camp in July into a solid, balanced, effective 53-man roster is not an easy task. The best ones that do it—Pittsburgh and New England come to mind—seem to always be atop the standings come December. The Niners used to be considered the best at it.
Looking back over the last 10 drafts, it becomes clear why the 49ers have struggled. There are some winners, but the real busts stand out.
The average career in the NFL is 3.5 seasons, but that’s no barometer for a player’s quality. It happens in the league that struggling, overmatched players who were taken high in the draft continued to get extensive playing time just because the organization didn’t want to admit that the player turned out to be a flop.
That can hurt a team; I mean, alter it fundamentally. For example, an over-matched running back missing an audible call and thus not seeing a blitzing cornerback who concusses the quarterback (which is how Steve Young’s career came to a close).
Moreover, playing high-priced failures hurts the team on the field, and it hurts team morale—which could let players become less than receptive to coaching or front office advice. And that can lead to dispiriting performances like the one we saw last year at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers, who want to build a new stadium, yet struggle to maintain the demand for season-ticket sales like in the 1990s, can’t afford such slip-ups like the following:
Top 5 Busts of the 49ers Draft, 2001-2010
1) Kwame Harris, 2003. The tackle out of Stanford was tried at left tackle, then moved to right tackle, then traded. Tall, gangly, and vulnerable—a real washout as the 28th pick.
2) Kentwan Balmer, 2008. Defensive lineman out of North Carolina. Five tackles in 11 games in his second year? Traded last year.
3) Rashaun Woods, 2004. The Oklahoma State receiver averaged 22.9 yards a catch. Except that the 31st player taken in the 2004 draft had only seven catches in 14 games. Of course, it was another of Terry Donahue’s stunning drafts for the 49ers.
4) Mike Rumph, 2002. Three interceptions in 35 games, 17 of which he started. The safety out of Miami couldn’t stay healthy.
5) David Baas, 2005. The guard out of Michigan was supposed to keep draft-mate Alex Smith upright, but injuries hurt his chances for getting into the lineup. He played extensively in 2010 to middling results.
Note: You’ll notice that Alex Smith doesn’t appear on this list. I think the jury is still out. Granted, he hasn’t come close to performing like the first player taken in the 2005 draft.
Of course, it didn’t help that Smith was running for his life almost from the first snap in training camp, and the only time he showed promise was in 2006 with Norv Turner as offensive coordinator.
He may not be a clear-cut success, but in no way is he a flat-out bust like the above players.
Top 5 Successes of the 49ers Draft, 2001-2010
1) Frank Gore, 2005. So many focus on Smith’s shortcomings at quarterback that they overlook what might rank as the best value in the 2003 draft—perhaps one of the best in the NFL in the last 10 years. Gore’s amazing performances, durability, and character influenced former coach Mike Singletary that he built his offense around him—and that ran, ironically enough, contrary to Smith’s skill set.
2) Patrick Willis, 2007. Never a doubt from the moment he arrived. Though aging, Ray Lewis seems to rank highest among inside linebackers, but Willis is very close.
3) Vernon Davis, 2006. Big, fast, strong. Good hands. Fierce blocker. So-so year in 2010, great one in 2009.
4) Andy Lee, 2004. Sixth-round pick from Pittsburgh developed into an elite punter; one of the best at angling the ball, especially inside the 20.
5) Delanie Walker, 2006. The sixth-round tight-end out of Central Missouri State does everythihng from run back kicks to catch passes. Good blocker, too
Top 5 Wait-and-See Players Still on the 49er Roster
1) Michael Crabtree, 2009. After sitting out the first five games in 2009, played well in ’10, and all but disappeared. Remember, he came from a spread offense and had to adapt a tighten-the-chin-strap, run-oriented scheme run by Singletary. Let’s see if he rededicates himself to new coach Jim Harbaugh.
2) Chilo Rachel, 2008. The guard out of USC last season had too many slipped blocks.
3) Anthony Dixon, 2010. Sixth-round RB out of Mississippi State had solid rookie numbers. Now comes the toughest transition.
4) Josh Morgan, 2008. Wide receiver out of Virginia Tech could develop into one of game’s elite. If so, the sixth-rounder would make GM Trent Baalke look really good.
5) Manny Lawson, 2006. The 22nd player taken in ’06 can run with the best of them; now it’s time for him to excel.