How the San Francisco 49ers Became the Scariest Team in the NFL

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IFebruary 28, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 03:  The San Francisco 49ers get ready to play the Baltimore Ravens during Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Based on factors such as coaching, roster talent and draft capital, one could reasonably argue that no team in the NFL is better suited for present and future success quite like the San Francisco 49ers.  

Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a ridiculous 24-7-1 over his first 32 NFL regular-season games, which is good for a winning percentage of almost 77 percent. Of course, that record is even more impressive when you consider Harbaugh has made trips to two NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl in his first two seasons. 

The 49ers roster is an almost perfect blend of young and veteran talent. 

On defense, veterans such as All-Pro Justin Smith (32 years old) and Carlos Rogers (31) complement young, established stars such as Patrick Willis (28), NaVorro Bowman (24), Aldon Smith (23) and Donte Whitner (27). 

The offense also blends the two important variables, with Colin Kaepernick (25), LaMichael James (23) and Michael Crabtree (25) mixing with Frank Gore (29) and Vernon Davis (29) at the skill positions. The 49ers offensive line, anchored by Joe Staley (28), Mike Iupati (25) and Anthony Davis (23), is certainly in the argument to be the NFL's best. 

They say the rich get richer, and that's exactly how the 2013 NFL draft is shaping up for the 49ers. 

By trading away backup quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs—a deal first reported by Jay Glazer of Fox Sports—the 49ers not only cleared up $8 million in cap space, but also received the No. 34 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. 

San Francisco now has five picks in the top 93 selections this April and is projected to have a staggering 15 picks overall. This kind of draft capital gives the 49ers limitless flexibility, either to move around the draft board or acquire a player such as New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis or Minnesota Vikings receiver Percy Harvin. 

Such a ridiculous amount of goodwill going for the 49ers begs the question: How did this franchise go from middling underachiever to NFL powerhouse?

Here's how:

Solid Drafting, Starting in 2005

Say what you want about taking Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers No. 1 overall in 2005, but the 49ers have been one of the NFL's best drafting teams since, and it's the foundational reason why the team is where it is today.

Let's run down those drafts, one by one:

  1. 2005: Smith, center Davis Baas, running back Gore, guard/tackle Adam Snyder. Smith revived his career late, and led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game in 2012. Baas and Snyder have been starters in the NFL, even if both have moved on to other teams. Gore remains the backbone of the 49ers' running game. 
  2. 2006: Tight end Vernon Davis, linebacker Manny Lawson, fullback Michael Robinson and tight end Delanie Walker. Davis is a top-5 NFL tight end, and Walker is the perfect secondary complement at the position. Lawson was a disappointment in San Francisco but has continued on a successful NFL career elsewhere. Robinson starts for the Seattle Seahawks.
  3. 2007: Linebacker Patrick Willis, tackle Joe Staley, defensive end Ray McDonald, safety Dashon Goldson, cornerback Tarell Brown. Jackpot. Willis, Staley and Goldson are All-Pros, McDonald is one of the more underrated 3-4 defensive ends, and Brown started in the Super Bowl. Can't ask for much more out of a draft class. 
  4. 2008: The one letdown year. Kentwan Balmer was a bust, and Chilo Rachal moved on after a brief stint starting at right guard. 
  5. 2009: Michael Crabtree. Mostly a one-man class, but Crabtree's emergence as a No. 1 receiver sparked the 49ers' late surge in 2012. His stock is trending up. 
  6. 2010: Offensive tackle Anthony Davis, guard Mike Iupati, safety Taylor Mays and linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Believe it or not, all eight players in this class ended 2012 on an active NFL roster. Davis, Iupati and Bowman are all elite players at their position. Another really, really good class. 
  7. 2011: Linebacker Aldon Smith, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, cornerback Chris Culliver, running back Kendall Hunter and fullback Bruce Miller. Drafting an elite pass-rusher and the one of the game's up-and-coming quarterbacks back to back is as good as it gets. Culliver, Hunter and Miller are each important role players. 
  8. 2012: Running back LaMichael James. First-round receiver A.J. Jenkins needed a year to marinate, so there's no need to provide comment there. James is the gem, and his speed and agility brought another element to the 49ers' read-option offense. 

Most NFL teams can only dream about bringing in the amount of talent San Francisco did from 2005 to 2012. The best franchises are still the ones who draft the best, and the 49ers' eight-year stretch can go toe-to-toe with any in the league. 

Smart in Free Agency and Trades

While the draft is still the best avenue for roster building, free agency and trading serves a purpose. Where drafts fail, free agency can help fill in the missing pieces. 

The 49ers have approached this period better than most NFL teams. 

Again, let's run down some of the players the 49ers have plucked from free agency or traded for over the last handful of seasons:

  • Defensive end Justin Smith: After seven seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, Smith was lured to the West Coast, where he developed into the game's best 3-4 defensive end and an intricate part of the NFC's top defense.
  • Linebacker Ahmad Brooks: After two disappointing seasons with the Bengals, Brooks landed with the 49ers. Slowly, he has become a vital instrument for San Francisco's pass rush. Brooks has 24.5 sacks over four years with the 49ers. 
  • Cornerback Carlos Rogers: Allowed to walk by the Washington Redskins, Rogers hitched up with San Francisco in 2011. He immediately became a Pro Bowl corner. 
  • Safety Donte Whitner: A first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills, Whitner represented the missing piece at safety. He made the Pro Bowl in 2012. 
  • Center Jonathan Goodwin: A nine-year veteran before landing in San Francisco, Goodwin helped solidify the interior of the 49ers' offensive line. He may not be around for long, but he has been worth the investment. 
  • Receiver Randy Moss: So maybe he wasn't the same Randy of old. But Moss was still a downfield threat in 2012, hauling in three scores and averaging almost 16 yards a catch. 
  • Receiver Ted Ginn, Jr.: A first-round bust in Miami, Ginn provided the 49ers with an electric return man on punts and kickoffs. 
  • Receiver Mario Manningham: Injuries halted what could have been a mutually beneficial marriage. 

When you combine consistently good drafts with smart, cap-efficient additions via free agency and trades, a very good roster can become the powerhouse that San Francisco's currently is.

Credit general manager Trent Baalke and the rest of the current and past 49ers' front offices for so many hits and so few catastrophic misses.

Coaching Success Stories

The transition from Mike Nolan to Mike Singletary to Jim Harbaugh was a long and bumpy one, but contributions from both Nolan and Singletary helped pave the road for Harbaugh's future success. 

Hard-nosed and defensive-minded, Nolan and Singletary established a culture of toughness and defense in San Francisco that translated well once Harbaugh was brought on board. A number of players brought into the organization were tied to both coaches, too. 

Behind the scenes, Harbaugh now has top assistant coaches in offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Secondary coach Ed Donatell and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula are both widely respected around the league. 

But above it all, the hiring of Harbaugh continues to represent a franchise-changing moment. 

Just two years into his tenure, Harbaugh is universally considered one of the game's finest coaches. His smash-mouth offense at Stanford has worked wonders at the next level, and few will argue against his work with both Smith and Kaepernick at quarterback. 

Once a draft bust, Smith developed into a legitimate starting quarterback—one that led the 49ers to the doorstep of the Super Bowl and that another NFL team felt comfortable trading a high pick for.

Kaepernick's development from an athletic but raw gadget quarterback to the next big thing happened in a blink of an eye and right under the nose of most.

Faced with a difficult choice between the two quarterbacks last season, Harbaugh rolled the dice with the young, inexperienced Kaepernick. The decision was the right one, as the 49ers ended up a few plays short of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. 

Players still win games in the NFL, but Harbaugh's presence in San Francisco has been the invaluable linchpin. The 49ers aren't where they are today without Harbaugh at the front of the organization. 

The 49ers have come up just short in back-to-back seasons, but this is an organization built for the long-haul. All the ingredients are in place:

A head coach in Jim Harbaugh who demands respect, plus an equally impressive supporting staff around him.

A front office—led by Trent Baalke—that has been among the NFL's best in identifying talent in both the draft and free agency. 

A resulting roster that is stacked with talent at every important position. It is also one mixed with just the right amount of young, emerging stars and established veterans. 

And to top it all off, an arsenal of draft picks available for the 2013 NFL draft, which allows Baalke and Harbaugh the flexibility to go a number of different ways to improve an already elite roster. 

As it stands currently, no NFL team outside San Francisco can check off each of the above factors. Expect these 49ers to have some staying power among the NFL elite. 


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