San Francisco 49ers: The Best Players in 2015 from Each Draft Class

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIJuly 15, 2015

San Francisco 49ers: The Best Players in 2015 from Each Draft Class

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Have the San Francisco 49ers been good at drafting in recent years?  You can make arguments for or against that fact, with the 2010 and 2011 drafts sitting in their favor and the 2012 draft very much sitting in the other column.  One fact that is inarguable, however, is that the 49ers will have one member of each draft class going back to 2004 in the NFL this season, something only 10 NFL teams can claim.

    Obviously, it’s more impressive to have members of the 2004 and 2005 classes still playing football than it is for the 2012 class to still be active, and the 49ers only qualify by a thread some years, but still.  It’s something of a testament to the player acquisition skills of the drafters over the past decade, be they Terry Donahue, Scot McCloughan or Trent Baalke.

    Of course, not all draft classes are created equal.  Some classes have starters and elite players ready to take the field in 2015, others have players scrambling to hold on to slots on the bottom of a roster.  Let’s take a look at the player from each of the 49ers’ last 12 draft classes who will have the biggest impact in 2015.

2004: Andy Lee (Cleveland Browns)

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Andy Lee takes this one by default.  He’s the last of Terry Donahue’s draft picks still active in the NFL, as Brandon Lloyd is currently without a contract.

    Even if players like Isaac Sopoaga, Justin Smiley or Shawntae Spencer were still in the league, however, Lee would probably still top the class.  It’s been a couple of years since Lee was last a first-team All Pro, but he’s still one of the top punters in the league.  His 46.8 yards per punt last season was tied for fourth-most in the league and was actually higher than his career average—in other words, his leg was still strong at age 32.  There’s no sign of him slowing down any time soon.

    The only reason Lee’s no longer a 49er is because the team decided to draft Bradley Pinion in the fifth round of this year’s draft.  Lee’s play didn’t warrant the selection of a replacement, but his contract may have.  Lee’s cap hit was scheduled to be $2.55 million this season, per Spotrac, which would have been 10th-most in the league.  That cap hit was only slated to go up in future seasons, so while the 49ers may have pulled the trigger on replacing him a year or so too early, it was a move that was bound to happen sooner or later.

    Lee is switching his uniform to No. 8 this season to honor his late daughter, Madelyn.  That, combined with his years of service to the 49ers and his impeccable off-field record, should give fans plenty of reasons to root for Lee’s continued success in Cleveland.  Considering the state of Cleveland’s offense, Lee should get plenty of opportunities to show off his new uniform number on the field.

2005: Alex Smith (Kansas City Chiefs)

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Alex Smith made his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2013, leading the Chiefs to an 11-4 record as a starter with his patented brand of mistake-free short-yardage passing.  The Chiefs sputtered a bit more last season, but Smith remained a moderately above-average quarterback who won’t lose games for you.  You wouldn’t want to pin your team’s hopes on Smith’s arm, but he is a game manager in the best meaning of the term—he’ll keep you in games and not make silly turnovers to hurt your chances.  If the Chiefs didn’t have a stud like Jamaal Charles, that would be a problem, but with a strong running game, Smith fits nicely in Kansas City.

    He’s played well enough the last two years that some have begun to wonder if trading him away to make room for Colin Kaepernick was the right decision.  Andy Benoit of the MMQB has Smith rated as the 18th-best starting quarterback, with Kaepernick down at No. 21.  There’s no doubting that Smith’s 2014 season was better than Kaepernick’s, but whether or not the 49ers will regret making that move in the long term is still to be decided.

    Smith’s completion for this spot wasn’t Kaepernick, however, but Frank Gore.  While Gore was still effective last year for San Francisco and looks penciled in as the starter in Indianapolis this season, 31-year-old quarterbacks generally outperform 32-year-old running backs.  While Gore has been able to avoid the worst of Father Time so far, he’s eventually going to slow down, even if it’s only into a platoon role with Dan Herron.  With that in mind, Smith gets the nod.

2006: Delanie Walker (Tennessee Titans)

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    2006’s draft class becomes a battle of the tight ends.  While Parys Haralson is a reserve linebacker for the New Orleans Saints and Manny Lawson might get more playing time as a defensive end for the Buffalo Bills, it’s the two starting tight ends who battle for the top spot here—Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.

    Based solely on last season, there’s no competition.  Walker caught 63 passes for 890 yards, while Davis struggled to 26 receptions for 245 yards.  Walker caught 63 percent of his targets, according to Pro Football Focus, and Davis caught just 55.3 percent.  Walker also graded out positively in run blocking at plus-5.7, with Davis plummeting to minus-7.9.

    There’s reason to think Davis will rebound some in 2015.  His numbers from 2012 and 2013 indicate a better player than he was in 2014, and history indicates players of Davis’ age and production levels tend to drop off somewhat gracefully, rather than falling to earth like he did last season.  We’ll probably never see him be a major weapon again, but a 400-500-yard season is definitely within the realm of possibility.

    Still, at this point, Walker has overtaken his former draft classmate.  He was the Titans’ most reliable receiver last season, and he’ll be a major safety valve for Marcus Mariota as a rookie.  While having a rookie as a quarterback should hamper him some and Davis should bounce back some, the gap is wide enough that Walker should still be the more productive player in 2015.

2007: Joe Staley

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    This one’s a no-brainer.

    Joe Staley is still one of the elite left tackles in football.  Even with the 49ers’ poor overall season, he was still graded fourth-highest by Pro Football Focus last season and hasn’t been below the top five since 2011.  His pass blocking fell a little last season, as he allowed a combined total of 29 quarterback pressures, per PFF—again his worst total since 2011. 

    Still, he was solid enough there and was still his usual force in the run game, opening up lanes and flattening defenders.  He’s arguably the best player on the team at this point, and his eight years of service—four of them earning him Pro Bowl nods—is enough to qualify him as the one remaining 49ers legend on the squad, now that Patrick Willis, Frank Gore and Justin Smith are gone.

    The only other player from the 2007 draft currently under contract is Dashon Goldson, who will likely start at safety for Washington this season after two bad seasons in Tampa Bay.  The gap in quality between the two players is enormous—and even if Goldson recovered the form that made him an All-Pro in 2012, Staley probably still would be the more valuable player.

2008: Josh Morgan (New Orleans Saints)

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    2008 provides us with slim pickings, as four of the six draft picks from that year are out of the league, and neither of the remaining players are starters.

    The pick goes to Josh Morgan considering the state of the Saints’ offensive reshuffling this offseason.  While Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston look like they will be the starters, there’s plenty of room in their prolific passing attack after the departures of Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills.  Morgan’s apparently been looking good in minicamp, according to Mike Triplett of ESPN, and getting to play with Drew Brees is going to boost any receiver’s stock.  It’s not out of the question for him to get as many as 50 receptions in that offense, and 15 would seem to be a reasonable floor.

    His only competition for this slot is Cody Wallace, who has bounced around the league somewhat but has settled down in Pittsburgh since 2013.  Wallace is the backup to Maurkice Pouncey, a first-team All-Pro at center last season.  While Wallace is fine in that backup role, he’s not particularly likely to see the field at all in 2015, making Morgan the pick.

2009: Michael Crabtree (Oakland Raiders)

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    While Michael Crabtree disappointed a little toward the end of his San Francisco career, never really remaining healthy or building on the promise that was his 2012 season, it was still a little surprising it took him so long to get a deal in free agency.  The Oakland Raiders kept Crabtree in the Bay Area with a one-year contract, but only after an ice-cold reception on a crowded wide receiver free-agent market.  Crabtree should be a lock to start across from Amari Cooper, but no one should really consider him a No. 1 receiver in the NFL at this point.

    Crabtree earns this spot almost by default, as well.  Ricky Jean-Francois has found a place as a rotational lineman in Washington, but he’s behind Jason Hatcher and Stephen Paea on the depth chart.  Bear Pascoe has a spot on the Chicago Bears, appropriately, but he’s behind Martellus Bennett, Dante Rosario and Zach Miller on the depth chart.

    This is the last of Scot McCloughan’s drafts, and only two players remain on the roster from his era: Joe Staley and Vernon Davis.   Considering the team went only 31-49 in McCloughan’s tenure, that perhaps isn’t too surprising.  Davis might be done after this year, but Staley should ensure McCloughan’s fingerprint remains on the team for at least three more seasons.

2010: NaVorro Bowman

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Now we enter the Trent Baalke era of drafting, and there’s a lot more to choose from, thanks to both the quality of players Baalke has drafted and simply less time having passed.  Even Baalke’s worst draft, 2012, still has six players in the NFL.

    There are a couple of solid players from the 2010 draft who have moved on to new places.  Anthony Dixon will reunite with Greg Roman in Buffalo.  He ran the ball for 432 yards on his first 100-carry season last year, though he’s expected to be third on the depth chart behind LeSean McCoy and Fred Jackson.  Mike Iupati should provide his usual combination of league-best run blocking and questionable pass protection to the Arizona Cardinals this season.

    However, even if he’s only 70 or 80 percent back from his 2013 knee injury, the best player in this draft is still NaVorro Bowman.  He’ll be asked to fill a leadership void on the 49ers defense now that Patrick Willis and Justin Smith have retired, and he should be more than up to the task.  He arguably had passed Willis on the field before his injury in 2013, and he remains one of the top two or three middle linebackers in the game.  He’s reportedly impressing in minicamp, according to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, and while there’ll undoubtedly be rust this season, he’s still bound to be the best player from this class this season.

2011: Aldon Smith

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The strongest overall of Baalke’s draft classes, 2011 gives us plenty of candidates to find the top player this season.

    It’s probably not Colin Kaepernick, even considering the importance of a starting quarterback in the NFL.  While I think he’ll bounce back from his poor season last year, it’d be a bit of a stretch to call him the best player this season, compared to others at his position.

    Daniel Kilgore played well at starting center last season before getting hurt and might win that spot again over Marcus Martin.  Bruce Miller is still one of the top fullbacks in the game for one of the few teams in the league that still uses a fullback on a regular basis.  Both are worth at least considering for this slot.

    Chris Culliver’s another strong candidate.  Now a starting cornerback in Washington, Culliver emerged last season, bringing in four interceptions and playing above average in coverage for a team that needed it, considering the loss of Tramaine Brock for the entire season.

    However, I’m picking Aldon Smith in what will hopefully be his first season not impacted by off-field issues since 2012.  That was the year Smith recorded 19.5 sacks and was arguably the best pass-rusher in all of football, Von Miller notwithstanding.  Even with the nine-game suspension he was hit with in 2014 and the rust he showed on the field after that point, he’s still averaging 0.88 sacks per game in his career, which is an incredible number.  With an actual quiet offseason for once and the chance for regular work, I feel Smith will rebound to his earlier form and be a pass-rushing beast this season.

2012: A.J. Jenkins (Dallas Cowboys)

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    2012 is, by far, Baalke’s worst draft class.  Only one of the class remains on the 49ers in 2015, and his spot isn’t guaranteed.

    Joe Looney has carved out a role as a reserve guard, but he’s definitely one of the last offensive linemen on the roster.  Brandon Thomas will start at left guard, and either Alex Boone, Marcus Martin or Daniel Kilgore will start at the other guard position, depending on what happens at right tackle.  Looney’s unlikely to see any significant playing time in 2015 barring another wave of injuries.

    LaMichael James, Darius Fleming, Trent Robinson and Cam Johnson are all afterthoughts on the depth charts of their respective teams, which leads us to the decision that it might be one of the worst busts in 49ers history who is the most productive player in this class in 2015.

    A.J. Jenkins has caught a grand total of 17 passes in his career, all of them for Kansas City.  He has signed on with the Dallas Cowboys, where he’s competing with five undrafted free agents and Reggie Dunn for the fifth receiver slot behind Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Devin Street.

    Dez Bryant has said that he will not report to training camp unless he gets a long-term deal, according to Ed Werder of ESPN.  If he holds to that threat, and it’s not simply a negotiating tactic, it’s not out of the question that Jenkins could open as the Cowboys’ fourth receiver.  The Cowboys’ fourth receiver in 2014 was Gavin Escobar, who had nine receptions for 105 yards.

    Perhaps Jenkins could get those nine receptions this season, which would make him the most productive member of this draft class in 2015.  That’s not precisely a badge of honor.

2013: Eric Reid

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Plenty of 2013’s draft picks look in place to have major roles for the 49ers in 2015.  Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine have the opportunity to be major contributors in the defensive line rotation with the departures of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.  Vance McDonald is itching to get more snaps, and he will if Vernon Davis doesn’t rebound from his 2014 form.  Quinton Patton has every opportunity to earn the third receiver slot.

    Still, the best player in this class so far has pretty clearly been Eric Reid, and he has the starting free safety spot locked up.  So far, concussions have been the only thing that has slowed him down.  Reid has suffered three concussions in the past two years, and there were some rumors this offseason that he might retire because of them.

    Those rumors were unfounded, and Reid will hope to make his second Pro Bowl appearance this season.  Reid was definitely not as solid last year as he was as a rookie in 2013; his numbers dropped across the board, be they tackles or interceptions or passes defensed.  He was also flagged for six penalties last season after going penalty-free in 2013.

    I’m writing some of that off as the general state of the team last season and the turmoil surrounding it, coupled with a bit of a sophomore slump.  Reid should bounce back nicely in 2015.

2014: Aaron Lynch

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    Brandon Thomas will be starting at guard after sitting out the 2014 season, so he’s a decent choice for this spot.  Marcus Martin may be the starter at center, depending on his battle with Daniel Kilgore.  Jimmie Ward has a lead up as the primary nickelback, and he did a decent job there last season before his injury.  None of them really should be first in class, however.

    Dontae Johnson looked very good as he was pressed further and further up the depth chart due to injuries last season, and he’s a dark horse to earn the starting cornerback position opposite Tramaine Brock.  Considering the uncertainty there, I don’t think he should be listed as the top player either, but I wouldn’t be stunned if he ends up as the most successful after the season.

    Carlos Hyde would be most people’s pick here.  He’s the easy favorite to be the leading rusher for the 49ers in 2015, replacing Frank Gore.  In short spurts and bursts last season, Hyde looked fantastic, especially in games against Dallas and Seattle.  With a shift to a zone-blocking system, there’s plenty of reason to believe Hyde will have a very productive 2015.  However, considering he’ll probably share at least some carries with Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter, I can’t quite place him first on the list, either.

    Aaron Lynch’s performance last year should be worthy of a starting spot in 2015.  His six sacks tied for the team lead, and he has been solid enough in coverage and run defense as well.  He looked better last season than Ahmad Brooks, and he’s younger and cheaper, which should give him two extra benefits in that race.

    The 49ers’ best outside linebacker combination in 2015 would be Aldon Smith and Lynch, though I suspect we’ll see a bit more of a rotation to get Brooks into the lineup.  By the end of the year, however, I’m fairly confident Lynch will be getting most of the snaps on the field.  Double-digit sacks aren’t out of the question.

2015: Arik Armstead

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    While the 49ers made 10 draft picks in 2015, most of them aren’t likely to see the field much this season:

    • Jaquiski Tartt will be primarily used on special teams, behind Antoine Bethea and Craig Dahl on the depth chart in all likelihood
    • Eli Harold, while a promising future linebacker, won’t see much playing time behind Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch and possibly even Corey Lemonier.
    • Mike Davis should be at best the fourth option in the running game behind Carlos Hyde, Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter.
    • Blake Bell and Rory Anderson have a tough battle to make an impact on a very crowded tight end depth chart.
    • DeAndre Smelter is likely to miss large chunks of the season recovering from an ACL tear, though Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area has reported the 49ers are holding out hope he can be activated during training camp.
    • Ian Silberman and Trent Brown are likely to be reserve linemen, though Brown has an outside chance to win the starting right tackle spot with Anthony Davis’ retirement.

    That leaves undisputed starting punter Bradley Pinion and first-round pick Arik Armstead battling, and I have to think a possible rotational defensive lineman is more valuable and productive than a punter.  While conventional wisdom is that Armstead needs more time to develop, there is a lack of players on the line at the moment.  Armstead could definitely find a place alongside Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial, rotating in in run defense as he picks up more and more experience in the NFL.

    None of this year’s draft class is liable to make a huge impact, but Armstead might have the best chance to make a splash.  I suppose that should be expected from a first-round pick.

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

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