Looking back to some of the great San Francisco 49ers who played critical roles in their Super Bowl campaigns, it is surprising to find that so many were middle- to late-round selections in the NFL Draft.
No better example can be found than the 1986 draft, when then coach Bill Walsh and GM John McVay selected Tim McKyer, Don Griffin, John Taylor, Tom Rathman, Charles Haley and Kevin Fagan from the third round and later. Within two seasons, all were starters and key contributors.
Joe Montana, lest we forget, was a third-round selection in 1979.
All of these examples point to Walsh’s ability to spot talent. It’s in the draft that a team proves its organizational capability. It is the most vital element in building a team to compete at the highest levels for more successive seasons (Key examples: New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, and Pittsburgh Steelers).
The fact of the matter is that injuries over the 16-game season drain a team of first-rate talent. Having quality backup players is the answer, and it’s in the draft and free agency where teams try to build their roster.
The fourth wide receiver, the third running back and the fifth defensive back or lineman often end up playing critical roles in the most critical games in December or January. Who can forget the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs last January having to resort to their eighth-string running back?
We hear that an NFL team comes into a game with 53 players on the active roster. One team last year, through injuries, ended up having 76 different players on their active roster over the course of the 2011 season.
So when most of the talk about the 2011 NFL Draft is whether Cam Newton is capable of playing right away in the pros, or should Patrick Peterson be the first player taken, player personnel directors have their eyes elsewhere.
Building a team requires finding players in the middle and late rounds, who are capable of playing at the level as well as filling in vital special teams positions. Here are some of the players that might turn into the late-round steals of the 2011 draft.
Greg Salas, Hawaii, Receiver. 6'1'', 210 pounds. Had 119 receptions in 2010. Three-year starter for the Rainbows, so he’s seasoned. Ran a 4.53 at the combine, and known for great hands. Perfect as slot receiver to stretch the inside seams of the zone.
Shiloh Keo, Idaho, Safety. 5'11'', 219 pounds. His 4.7 time in the 40 may sound slow, but the 34-inch vertical leap proves his athletic ability. He’s a football version of the “gym rat.” Can’t get him off the practice field. Another Bob Sanders?
Allen Bradford, USC, Running Back. 5'11'', 242 pounds. The fastest big back in the draft. Amazing that Lane Kiffin couldn’t find better use for him last year for Trojans, where he shared time. Averaged 7.2 yards per carry and ran a 4.53 at the Combine. Questions may be his hands and blocking.
Matt Asiata, Utah, Running Back. 5'10'', 229 pounds. Averaged more than 100 yards per game in the first four games of 2009 season, followed by season-ending knee injury ended that year, which is one reason why he went under the radar in 2010. He has good hands, can block, though his 4.77, 40 time might scare some off. Free agent candidate?
Alex Green, Hawaii, Running Back. 6'0'', 225 pounds. He’s the answer of a bar bet: Who led the nation in yards per carry? Green, at 8.2. Ran a 4.45 at the combine. He’s a junior college transfer, and led Hawaii with 1,199 rushing yards last season—quite an accomplishment for the pass-happy Rainbows. More telling: 11 receptions on check-downs, a portending of his skills in the NFL.