San Francisco 49ers: Reevaluating the 2010 NFL Draft, Five Years Later

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIApril 10, 2015

San Francisco 49ers: Reevaluating the 2010 NFL Draft, Five Years Later

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    Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

    It takes about five years to really judge an NFL Draft.  While you’ll see half a dozen report cards and grades in the immediate aftermath of the draft, there’s really no way to tell if a team has succeeded at taking the best players possible until the players have a chance to actually take the field.  What grade the San Francisco 49ers get on the Wednesday after the draft means nothing when compared to the record they’ll have after the 2019 season.

    Remember, five years ago, players like Brandon Graham, Tim Tebow and Jahvid Best were consider first-round talents.  While a team might get excited about the opportunity to draft Arik Armstead, Melvin Gordon or Jaelen Strong this year, maybe those are players we’ll look back in five years and wonder how a general manager could have ever decided they were worth a first-round selection.  It’s all something of a crapshoot until the players actually get to perform on the field.

    It just so happens that this year happens to be the fifth anniversary of San Francisco 49ers’ general manager Trent Baalke’s first draft in charge of the 49ers, and it’s one that provided a fundamental cornerstone for years of success for the team.  The B that Mel Kiper gave the 49ers back in 2010 is all well and good, but the Super Bowl appearance and overall 50-29-1 record since then means more than some letter grade an expert gave without seeing the players ever appear on the field.

    Looking back now, five years later, Baalke’s rookie draft was one of the best drafts of the year.  It’s probably top-four overall, considering that they found two All-Pros and three starters in their eight picks.  It’s not as deep of a draft as, say the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots managed to put up in 2010, but considering it was Baalke’s first time in charge of a draft room, it was a phenomenal performance.

    With 2015’s edition rapidly rushing towards us, let’s go back and look at the 2010 draft one more time.  It’s always a good reminder that sure-fire first-round picks may miss and late-round sleepers might rise to the top.  We can also use it to think about how the 49ers might draft this year—what lessons, if any, did they learn, and what tactics might they use again?

    All contemporary scouting reports come from NFL.com’s archives, unless otherwise noted.

First Round (No. 11 Overall): Anthony Davis, T, Rutgers

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    Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

    The 49ers didn’t enter the 2010 draft with the 11th overall pick.  Instead, they made the first draft-day trade of the 2010 draft with the Denver Broncos, giving up their 13th pick and their fourth-round selection to the Denver Broncos to move up two slots.  Those two picks became Brandon Graham and Aaron Hernandez, so it’s not like either had a ton of long-term value.

    In exchange, the 49ers got their man in Anthony Davis.  The 49ers had a huge hole at right tackle, as they were debating between Tony Pashos and Adam Snyder to fill that role, so using their first-overall pick on a big tackle like Davis made a lot of sense at the time.  Concerns about Davis’ work-ethic and weight were raised at the time, but surely, Mike Singletary could whip him into shape.

    In retrospect, if the 49ers were dead-set on getting an offensive tackle, they definitely picked the right man.  You could make an argument for who the best tackle in the 2010 draft class was, as Washington has been plenty happy with Trent Williams, but Williams went with the fourth-overall pick.  None of the other tackles drafted that year come close to Davis’ production; he had started every game until this past season, when injuries knocked him around a bit.  Any time you get a long-term starter at your position of greatest need, you have to be thrilled with the pick.

    I can’t quite give the 49ers the full “A” here, though, because there were a couple players drafted in this general area who, in retrospect, the 49ers might have been better off with.  Most notably, the Seattle Seahawks drafted Earl Thomas three picks later, and he’s become the best defensive back in football, compared to Davis’ standard as “just” a very good right tackle.  You could also make arguments for Ryan Mathews and Jason Pierre-Paul as being better players, though the 49ers’ need at tackle still makes Davis the better pick.

    The pick proves that Baalke isn’t afraid to move up to grab the player he wants at the position of biggest need.  Could we see the 49ers do that for Amari Cooper this year?  We’ll have to wait and see.

    Grade: B

First Round (No. 17 Overall): Mike Iupati, G, Idaho

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    The 49ers had two first-round picks in 2010 thanks to clever trading the year before.  They gave a second-rounder and fourth-rounder to the Carolina Panthers the year before for this selection, which resulted in Everette Brown and Mike Goodson.  Neither has developed into anything in the NFL, though Brown was still kicking around the league with Washington last season.

    In exchange, the 49ers got Carolina’s first-round pick in 2010, and decided to double down on protecting quarterback Alex Smith and promoting Frank Gore’s running game.  David Baas was their left guard of choice coming into the draft, and it’s fair to say that Mike Iupati was a bit of an upgrade.

    The first guard off the draft board, Iupati was lauded for his terrific size, his toughness and his tenacity—all of which he continued to display in the NFL.  No, he never really developed into a pass-blocker, but he’s the best run-blocking guard in football.  So much of the 49ers’ success over the past five seasons can be attributed to the running game and the blocking that was cemented by these two first-round selections in Iupati and Davis.  Rather than get a little better at a couple positions, the 49ers got a lot better at one, which created a trickle-down effect which boosted the entire offense.  This is why building from the lines out is a good strategy overall; the right players on the offensive line can make the entire offense look better.

    You could make an argument as to Iupati or center Maurkice Pouncey, who the Pittsburgh Steelers took with the very next selection.  I don’t think either team would trade what they received over the last five seasons for the other team’s haul, but Pouncey has made one more All-Pro team and one more Pro Bowl than Iupati has.  You could also make an argument for Demaryius Thomas being a better selection than Iupati five picks later, but that’s borderline, as well.

    Really, all things considered, the 49ers cemented their running game for a half-decade with this pick.  You can’t really top that.

    Grade: A

Second Round (No. 49 Overall): Taylor Mays, DB, USC

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Well, they can’t all be winners.

    Using their second-round pick on safety Taylor Mays made sense at the time.  The 49ers had just used two picks on offense, so it was time to boost their defense some.  Mays was a freakish athlete, with exceptional size and speed; he ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine.  It was thought he could succeed in almost any scheme out there; he had the speed and ball skills to play a deep safety position over the top, and the instincts and hitting ability to deliver the boom in run support.  Sure, he was probably a bit over-aggressive with sloppy technique, but that’s something you can coach up, right?

    Well, as it turns out, not so much.  Mays is still in the NFL at least, so I suppose he’s not a total wash-out, but he only lasted one year in San Francisco, starting six game before being shipped out for a seventh-round pick by Jim Harbaugh’s regime.  Apparently, only Mike Singletary was really in love with the safety, according to Mike Lombardi, and neither Baalke nor Harbaugh shared the same feelings.

    We saw a similar move with the end of the Harbaugh-era, with one of Harbaugh’s guys being shipped out of town.  Jonathan Martin was released a year after Harbaugh’s old college player was brought in to play the swing tackle position.  If you’re on the team simply because of the old head coach, you often find the new head coach not thrilled with the idea of keeping you around.

    Since leaving the 49ers, Mays has only started four games in the NFL—he’s simply not good enough to be a starter, though his tackling ability makes him a useful special-teams player.

    Instead of their one year of Mays, the 49ers could have gone with almost anyone picked in his immediate aftermath—defensive ends Jason Worilds and Carlos Dunlap and linebacker Sean Lee all went within the next six picks after Mays went off the board.

    Still, it’s not like Mays has been a useless player in the NFL—he was a somewhat-coveted free agent this offseason, as a sub-package option and special teams player.  He’s just a well-below average result for a pick this high.

    Grade: D

Third Round (Pick No. 91): NaVorro Bowman, LB, Penn State

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    Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

    If you were to re-draft the entire 2010 draft class, how high would Bowman go?

    Looking back, Ndamukong Suh has been the best player to come out of the class, resulting in the massive contract he signed with Miami this offseason.  He’d be my number one pick by far; he’s the best player at his position in the entire NFL and has missed almost no time due to injuries or suspensions; he was a top performer from day one.

    The second pick is rougher.  The Cowboys are definitely thrilled with Dez Bryant’s production at receiver over the past five years, while Seattle’s Legion of Boom couldn’t have developed without Earl Thomas.  The Steelers found an anchor for their offensive line for years to come when they found Maurkice Pouncey.

    All of those players, however, were first-round picks, so they should be in the consideration for top players in the draft.  You expect to find top players in round one.  When you can find someone right in that conversation in round three, however, you have the steal of the draft.

    If it wasn’t for NaVorro Bowman’s ACL tear in the NFC Championship Game against Seattle two season ago, as well as the accompanying uncertainty of his recovery, he’d be right in the mix with Suh for best player in the class.  If he returns to the form he showed before injury, he might take that crown outright from Suh before their careers are done.

    Even more to the point, the 49ers actually traded back to get Bowman, so they got more value.  They traded back from the 79th pick and ended up with Bowman, Anthony Dixon and Kendall Hunter.  What value!

    Of course, it didn’t seem that way at the time—Bowman had durability concerns coming out of college as well as character issues as well.  This was Bleacher Report’s Robert Wayerski’s view of the pick:

    I hate this pick! Was Bowman a value at this point in the draft? Yes, but where are they going to use him. If they drafted him to play inside, it was a wasted pick because the team already has some depth at that position. If they drafted him to play outside, they passed on Everson Griffen, Ricky Sapp, and Corey Wootton all who could immediately help out the pass rush. The real reason this was a bad pick was that they passed on getting a CB like Brandon Ghee. The only reason I did not give this pick and F was that they traded back and got some extra picks to do it.  Grade: D-

    Oops.

    Grade: A+

Fifth Round TRADE: Ted Ginn Jr, WR, Miami Dolphins

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    Hans Deryk/Associated Press

    The 49ers made no picks in the fourth or fifth rounds of the 2010 draft.  Their fourth-round pick was used to trade up for Anthony Davis, as previously mentioned.  Their fifth-round pick was traded just before the draft to the Miami Dolphins, in order to grab Ted Ginn.

    The need certainly made sense at the time.  The 49ers had Arnaz Battle and Brandon Jones as their punt returners the year before, averaging a whopping 2.9 yards per return.  They also needed help in the slot; they were satisfied with Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan as their starting receivers, but needed speed inside.  Ginn was one of the top return men in the business, even if he’s never actually developed into a solid receiver, per se.

    Ginn lasted three years in San Francisco, totaling 30 receptions for 384 yards.  More to the point, he solidified the return game, averaging 11.8 yards per punt return and 23.5 yards per kick return in his time in San Francisco, scoring three touchdowns.  That’s fairly solid, if unspectacular.

    The pick would have been the 145th in the draft.  Were there any players there that would have been better than Ginn?  Well, yes.  Available on the clock then were receiver Riley Cooper, who has had a solid, albeit controversial, career in Philadelphia; guard Marshall Newhouse, who wouldn’t have been a fit thanks to the Iupati selection in round 1; defensive end Arthur Jones, who has been a solid defensive tackle for Baltimore and Indianapolis; and Reshad Jones, who has anchored a safety position for Miami for the past five years.  You could also make argument for the players taken with the 145th and 146th picks, Nolan Carrol and Cam Thomas.

    Still, the 49ers used a fifth-round pick to fill a need for three years.  That’s pretty solid value out of the selection.  A returner isn’t as valuable as a starter on offense or defense, but it’s not nothing.  The trade isn’t exactly going to make Trent Baalke’s highlight reel, but it was a solid move.

    Grade: C+

Sixth Round (No. 173 Overall): Anthony Dixon, RB, Mississippi State

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    Kerry Smith/Associated Press

    Anthony Dixon was supposed to bring an all-new sense of power to the 49ers’ offense.  At 240 pounds, he was going to run downhill and smash through you, gaining the tough yards in the red zone and other short-yardage situations.

    Instead, Dixon rarely saw the field in San Francisco.  He averaged just 37 carries for 114 yards in his four seasons in the red and gold, falling well behind Gore and Kendall Hunter on the depth chart.  He was superseded by the rapidly aging and decaying Brian Westbrook as a rookie, and only started one game for the team—at fullback in the 2013 NFC Championship.  He provided the 49ers with no real value whatsoever, although he was decent enough at special teams, I suppose.

    In most years, that’s worth a C or so; there’s only so badly you can miss with a sixth-round pick.  However, there were at least four players down here in 2010 who could have provided a much more solid use of the pick than Dixon.

    If the 49ers were dead-set on picking a running back, James Starks was available; he’s been a solid reserve player in Green Bay for the past five years.  Within the next five picks after Dixon’s selection, two defensive studs went—defensive end Greg Hardy and linebacker Arthur Moats.

    The best player the 49ers missed out on, however, was wide receiver Antonio Brown, who the Steelers took with the 195th overall pick.  Brown has an argument, alongside Bowman, to being the biggest steal of the draft.  The 49ers are still looking for their number-one receiver; grabbing Brown back in 2010 would have resulted in a very different team the past few seasons.

    Grade: D

Sixth Round (No. 182 Overall): Nate Byham, TE, Pittsburgh

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Nate Byham was considered the “second-best blocking tight end in the draft” by NFL.com, and the pick was considered part of the philosophical statement of how the 49ers would play football from here on out.

    That may be so, but that philosophical statement never translated onto the field.  Byham started three games in his rookie season for the 49ers, and that was enough to ensure he never saw the field with the team again.  He tore his ACL in 2011, and was released from the team after that.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried him out for a year or two after that, but he couldn’t even make it as a blocking specialist.

    Byham’s essentially a wasted pick; he never even showed value on special teams.  Any of the next 14 picks or so would have been better for the team, with James Starks and Antonio Brown specifically standing out.

    Grade: F

Sixth Round (No. 206 Overall): Kyle Williams, WR, Arizona State

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Instead of taking Antonio Brown, the 49ers took Kyle Williams.  Obviously, that didn’t work out so well, but Williams wasn’t horrible in his own right.

    The oddest thing about the Williams selection is that he was supposed to provide the same sort of skillset that Ted Ginn brought in via trade—a lean, quick receiver who would be a threat in the open field.  He ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine, but fell late thanks to his 5’10”, 188-pound frame—he’s tiny for an NFL receiver.

    Williams never exactly burst onto the scene in San Francisco, but was a decent enough third- or fourth-receiver, averaging more than 200 yards a season in his second and third years in the league.    He was replaced in the lineup by Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham in 2013, but he filled his small role decently until then.

    Of course, the most prominent memory 49ers fans will have of Williams is his muffed punts and fumbles against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, causing an overtime loss.  It’s unfair to judge his entire career by one game, however.

    Grade: C-

Seventh Round (No. 224 Overall): Phillip Adams, DB, South Carolina State

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    What do you expect out of a seventh-round pick?  If they ever make any impact in the league whatsoever, it can’t be a horrible pick.

    Adams was a late-round flyer from a small school, drafted just because of his raw athleticism.  He never got a chance to really show it in San Francisco, however—he had a bit of a promising rookie season, but broke his ankle late in 2010 and was released.

    Adams is still in the league, which is fantastic for a seventh-rounder.  He was picked up by Atlanta in March, and has a chance to make their roster.  Only 20 of the 48 seventh-round picks from 2010 were still in the league last season.  Adams is a survivor.  Even if he didn’t get a chance to provide much value to the 49ers, the pick was still solid.

    Grade: C+

Overall

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    Can Bowman bring Super Bowl number six to San Francisco?
    Can Bowman bring Super Bowl number six to San Francisco?Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Like I said before, I’d give the 49ers the fourth-best grade among 2010 drafts.  The Denver Broncos grabbed Demaryius Thomas, Zane Beadles and Eric Decker to top their class, even if they wasted their first-round pick on Tim Tebow.  The Pittsburgh Steelers found a diamond with Antonio Brown to go alongside first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey and Emmanual Sanders.  Bill Belchick continued his draft magic for the New England Patriots with Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes in the first two rounds.

    The 49ers’ draft, however, compares with any of those classes.  They set the tone for the next five years of 49ers football by doubling down on two great offensive linemen, and then added one of the best linebackers in their history with a massive steal in the third round.

    If there’s anything that this look back can tell us about 2015, however, it’s that you shouldn’t put too much faith in those instant grades.  At the time, the vast consensus was that Taylor Mays was going to be a starting safety for years to come, while NaVorro Bowman was a wasted selection with too many issues to contribute.  Time has shown the error in those predictions.

    Finally, it’s not really fair to do this, but what if the 49ers had had perfect hindsight in 2010?  What is the best possible draft they could have put together with the nine picks they had?  Keeping Bowman is a must, but I think, with perfect foresight, they could have at least slightly improved every pick.  It probably would have ended up something like this:

    Round 1: Earl Thomas, DB, Texas
    Round 1: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida
    Round 2: NaVorro Bowman, LB, Penn State
    Round 3: Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati
    Round 5: Reshad Jones, DB, Georgia
    Round 6: Antonio Brown, WR, Central Michigan
    Round 6: Greg Hardy, DE, Missisippi
    Round 6: J’Marcus Webb, OT, West Texas A&M
    Round 7: Kavell Connor, LB, Clemson

    Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on twitter.

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