San Francisco 49ers: 50 Greatest Draft Picks of All Time
Nailing a draft pick can set an NFL team up for years. If, after all the scouting, the game tape, the combine, the sleepless nights and nail-biting draft days you make the right selection, your team can be propelled into contention for years.
With less than 50 days to go before the 2014 NFL Draft, it’s a good time to look back at history. With that in mind, I’ve assembled the list of the 50 greatest selections in San Francisco 49ers history. It’s a look back and a celebration of the wisest of the wise decisions made on draft day.
First, a note on methodology. To get the basis for the list, I looked at all 14,000+ draft selections made since the NFL went to a common draft in 1967. Using Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value stat, I calculated the expected value of each draft slot, and then compared it to the AV of each San Francisco draft pick. Finally, I adjusted active players, due to the fact that they have years of production remaining.
Draft position is important—a pro bowler picked in the sixth round is harder to find than one in the first round—but not exclusively so. After all, a Hall of Fame player is a Hall of Fame player, no matter if they’re taken with the first pick in the draft or the last.
Finally, I’m only looking at players picked in 2010 or earlier. It’s early enough that a player like Colin Kaepernick could still regress to the mean, or Taylor Mays could rebound.
With no further ado, here are the 50 greatest draft picks in San Francisco history.
50. Bob Hoskins, DT, Wichita State
Picked in the 16th round of the 1969 draft, 406th overall.
27.56 AV points above average.
Yes, NFL drafts once went on for 400 picks or more. Hoskins actually played in the Canadian League and Continental League before being picked by San Francisco. Drafted as an offensive lineman, his quickness inspired a move to the defensive side of the ball, where he started three years as a defensive tackle. His career was cut short by a battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphona and blood clots in his legs, but for someone who would be an undrafted free agent today, he had a great career.
49. Parys Haralson, DE, Tennessee
Picked in the 5th round of the 2006 draft, 140th overall.
22.07 AV points above average; still active.
Haralson was a starter for five seasons before Aldon Smith replaced him in 2011. In his time in San Francisco, Haralson racked up 21.5 sacks. He was traded to New Orleans before last season, where he started eight games before tearing his pectoral muscle. He likely has a few more years left in his career before he has to hang ‘em up.
48. Earl Edwards, DT, Wichita State
Picked in the 5th round of the 1969 draft, 120th overall.
28.26 AV points above average
Eleven rounds before picking his old college teammate Hoskins, the 49ers used a selection on another Shocker for the defensive side of the ball in defensive tackle Edwards. They ended up sending 11 players to the Edmonton Eskimos for Edwards’ rights, and he responded by being named the team’s Rookie of the Year.
Edwards played in over 150 games in his NFL career for the 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers. An ordained minister, he is still involved with football as the president of the Phoenix chapter of the NFLPA’s retired players.
47. Isaac Sopoaga, DT, Hawaii
Picked in the 4th round of the 2004 draft, 104th overall.
25.58 AV points above average; still active.
San Francisco traded up to grab Sopoaga, though the move didn’t pay off at first. It wasn’t until 2008 that Sopoaga cracked the starting lineup for good, becoming a fixture first at left end and then at nose tackle.
Sopoaga started 80 games for the 49ers, but was let go in free agency last season, replaced by Glenn Dorsey. He’s still looking to continue his career, but at age 33, he might be done.
46. Chip Myers, WR, NW Oklahoma State
Picked in the 10th round of the 1967 draft, 248th overall.
28.78 AV points above average.
Myers only played one season in San Francisco, catching two passes for 13 yards.
It was in Cincinnati, however, that Myers developed into a solid starting receiver. In eight years playing for the Bengals, Myers caught 218 receptions for 3,079 yards. He even made the Pro Bowl in 1972, ranking third in the league in receptions.
Considering the 49ers were trotting out the likes of Preston Riley and Dick Witcher across from Gene Washington in the early 70s, they could have used Myers’ productivity in their lineup.
45. Tim McKyer, DB, Texas-Arlington
Picked in the 3rd round of the 1986 draft, 64th overall.
28.89 AV points above average.
McKyer came late to the 49ers’ dynasty of the ‘80s, but ended up starting Super Bowl XXIII at left cornerback. That season, McKyer intercepted seven passes and was named second-team All-Conference.
McKyer picked up a second Super Bowl ring with the 49ers the next season, and then bounced around the league for eight more seasons. He added a third Super Bowl ring as a reserve cornerback for Denver in 1997. All in all, he started 122 games for six different teams, including a memorable season with the expansion Carolina Panthers. He retired with 33 career interceptions.
44. Skip Vanderbundt, LB, Oregon State
Picked in the 3rd round of the 1968 draft, 69th overall.
29.77 AV points above average.
Vanderbundt started 100 games at linebacker for the 49ers between 1969 and 1977. Alongside Frank Nunley and Dave Wilcox, he was part of a great linebacking corps that helped propel Dick Nolan’s teams to the playoffs.
Though he only started 6 games total in ’73 and ’74, Vanderbundt was a regular starter from the moment he arrived in San Francisco until he left town in the house cleaning prior to the ’78 season.
43. Eric Wright, DB, Missouri
Picked in the 2nd round of the 1981 draft, 40th overall.
30.30 AV points above average.
The 49ers famously drafted three starting defensive backs in 1981. While most of the attention has been focused on Ronnie Lott, Wright was a two-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro selection in his own right, starting 82 games for San Francisco in the ‘80s.
Wright started Super Bowls XVI and XIX and was a contributor on the other two Super Bowls in the ‘80s, as well. His biggest single play, however, was likely in the 1981 NFC Championship game. He was the one who stopped Drew Pearson from scoring a touchdown after The Catch, preserving the 49ers lead and beginning their dynasty.
42. Julian Peterson, LB, Michigan State
Picked in the 1st round of the 2000 NFL draft, 16th overall.
30.63 AV points above average
Our first first-rounder of the list, the 49ers traded back with the Jets to take Peterson in the middle of the round. Peterson was a starter from day one, and ended up making two Pro Bowls with the team, and then three more in Seattle.
In his time in San Francisco, Peterson had 21.5 sacks and 296 tackles, and was a defensive leader. His departure after the 2005 season was a definite blow to the team, especially considering he made three consecutive Pro Bowls in the ensuing seasons. Letting him go was just one in a long line of mistakes made in the mid-2000s by the 49ers.
41. Jeremy Newberry, C, California
Picked in the 2nd round of the 1998 NFL draft, 58th overall.
31.73 AV points above average
Newberry ended up playing all over the line for the 49ers, moving for good into the center position in 2000 when Chris Dalman was hurt. At center, Newberry was a two-time Pro Bowler, as well as a three-time winner of the Bobb McKittrick Award, given to the team’s top offensive lineman.
Newberry held down the center position with a characteristic toughness and tenacity, starting 90 games for the 49ers. He missed the 2006 season thanks to microfracture surgery on his knee, ending his time with the team.
40. Delvin Williams, RB, Kansas
Picked in the 2nd round of the 1974 draft, 49th overall.
31.76 AV points above average
Williams rushed for 2,966 yards in four seasons in San Francisco, making the Pro Bowl in 1976. He was let go after 1977 to be replaced by O.J. Simpson in one of the bigger mistakes in 49er history.
In Miami the very next year, Williams rushed for 1,258 yards, fourth best in the NFL, and was named to the All-Pro team. By comparison, Simpson ran for 593 yards for San Francisco that season. It is not entirely unrelated that general manager Joe Thomas only lasted two seasons with the 49ers.
39. Gene Washington, WR, Stanford
Picked in the 1st round of the 1969 draft, 16th overall.
33.63 AV points above average
Washington was the one true productive receiver for San Francisco in the ‘70s. In his nine seasons with the team, he missed only two games, catching 371 passes for 6,664 yards. He was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four NFL seasons, making the All-Pro team in three of those years.
Washington’s numbers dropped off once John Brodie was replaced by various flavors of the week at quarterback, but he remained a productive player throughout his career. After retirement, Washington remained involved in football, as the director of football operations for the NFL, until 2009.
38. Brandon Lloyd, WR, Illinois
Picked in the 4th round of the 2003 draft, 124th overall.
33.65 AV points above average
Lloyd only lasted three seasons in San Francisco, putting up 1,510 receiving yards on 105 receptions. He ended up playing his way out of San Francisco thanks to attitude issues, and difficulties working with teammates.
Lloyd bounced around the NFL as a solid second or third option, having a career year in 2010 with Denver. That year, he caught 77 passes for 1,448 yards and made the Pro Bowl. He also had a good season in 2012 with the Patriots and Tom Brady. Perhaps the Tim Rattay and Alex Smith-led 49ers were not the ideal situation to cultivate his talents. For a fourth round draft pick, he had a fairly solid career.
37. Eric Heitmann, G, Stanford
Picked in the 7th round of the 2002 draft, 239th overall.
34.34 AV points above average.
The 49ers never started rookies on the offensive line, much less seventh-round picks. Yet there Heitmann was in 2002, starting at left guard in his first season in the league. He also played center, which came in handy when Jeremy Newberry went down—Heitmann moved to center in 2006, and finished out his career there.
All in all, Heitmann started 114 games for San Francisco and picked up three consecutive Bobb McKittrick Awards. A back injury ended his career after the 2009 season.
36. Keena Turner, LB, Purdue
Picked in the 2nd round of the 1980 draft, 39th overall.
35.08 AV points above average.
Turner was never the star of the 49ers defense, but he was a regular and consistent cog throughout the 1980s, starting on all four Super Bowl teams. For over a decade, Turner was a fixture at the outside linebacker position.
His best season came in 1984, when Turner made the Pro Bowl behind a two-sack, four-interception season, but Turner was far from a one-season wonder. Turner remains involved with the 49ers today as the Vice President of Football Affairs.
35. Dashon Goldson, DB, Washington
Picked in the 4th round of the 2007 draft, 126th overall.
24.83 AV points above average; still active.
The 49ers traded back in the 2007 draft, essentially giving up the right to draft Tony Ugoh in exchange for the opportunity to take Goldson. Advantage San Francisco.
Goldson made the Pro Bowl twice in San Francisco, and was named to the All-Pro team in 2012. Yes, he was flagged a bit much for unnecessary roughness, but he played at a high level for the 49ers for four seasons, which is more than you can expect out of a fourth-rounder.
Goldson signed with Tampa Bay last offseason, and continued his starting role for the Buccaneers. His final ranking is based on an assumption that he’ll continue to produce in Tampa Bay for several more seasons.
His replacement, Eric Reid, had a great rookie season, but he needs more experience under his belt to challenge this list.
34. NaVorro Bowman, LB, Penn State
Picked in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft, 91st overall.
33.02 AV points above average; still active.
The most recent addition to the great picks list, Bowman’s been a revelation in the early part of his career. Bowman’s the only Harbaugh/Baalke draft pick to make the list, and what a selection he was.
The 49ers traded down to grab Bowman, with the Chargers taking Donald Butler in his place. It’s safe to say Bowman’s been a bit better to start his career.
Bowman’s been a starter for three of his four seasons in San Francisco making the All-Pro team in each and every one of those years. Alongside Patrick Willis, they’ve formed the best middle linebacking duo in football.
Bowman did suffer a horrific knee injury in the NFC Championship game, so it remains to be seen how he’ll bounce back over the next few seasons. Even if the injury was worse than expected, and Bowman never saw the field again, however, he’d be worthy of a slot in this range. If he comes back at the level he’s played so far, he’ll be a top-five draft steal before he’s done. Consider this a resting place before he shoots to the top of the rankings.
33. Joe Staley, T, Central Michigan
Picked in the 1st round of the 2007 draft, 28th overall.
21.19 AV points above average; still active.
Staley’s the first example we have of the team trading up to grab someone, trading away their first-round pick in 2008 for the right to grab Staley the year before.
It’s safe to say Staley was worth the investment. The last three seasons, he’s been arguably the greatest left tackle in football, making the Pro Bowl in all three seasons. In 2014, he’ll pass the 100 game started mark, and looks set to clamp down the most important position on the offensive line for years to come.
Staley ranks above Bowman at the moment thanks to the greater experience on the field; his higher draft selection, however, means Staley won’t be able to rise nearly as rapidly.
32. Riki Ellison, LB, USC
Picked in the 5th round of the 1983 draft, 117th overall.
36.97 AV points above average.
Your average fifth-round selection is a borderline starter for three years or so before washing out. Ellison started five seasons for the 49ers in the ’80s, including starting in Super Bowl XIX.
Ellison brought a passion and reckless intensity his inside linebacker position, as well as a single-minded focus. College and pro teammate Ronnie Lott said that once, when stuck in traffic before a game, Ellison pulled over, abandoned his car on the side of the road, and ran the rest of the way to the stadium.
Ellison started 77 games for San Francisco in six seasons, finishing his career with three more seasons for the Raiders.
31. Lee Woodall, LB, West Chester
Picked in the 6th round of the 1994 draft, 182nd overall.
37.15 AV points above average
Woodall was a starter from year one, picking up a ring in Super Bowl XXIX. In his six-year career in San Francisco, Woodall started 88 games and made two Pro Bowls, becoming a consistent contributor during the last half of the ‘90s.
While never as dynamic or showy as some of his linebacker mates like Ken Norton, Woodall was quick and agile, and put in hard work year after year. Not a bad career for someone out of tiny West Chester.
30. Elvis Grbac, QB, Michigan
Picked in the 8th round of the 1993 draft, 219th overall.
39.32 AV points above average
Grbac never had the chance to contribute for the 49ers. While he started nine games in San Francisco, he was never going to replace Steve Young as the starter.
Once he left the team, however, Grbac put together a very solid career, especially for a player who would be undrafted today. Grbac started 70 games in his NFL career for the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and 49ers, even making the Pro Bowl in 2000, when he threw for more than 4,100 yards.
The Chiefs have a great history of starting ex-49er quarterbacks, including Grbac, Steve Bono, Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana and now Alex Smith. If you want to revitalize your career as an ex-San Francisco quarterback, Kansas City always seems to have their doors open.
29. John Taylor, WR, Delaware State
Picked in the 3rd round of the 1986 draft, 76th overall.
39.90 AV points above average.
While maybe not a household name around the NFL, due to playing second fiddle to Jerry Rice for so many years, Taylor could have been the top receiver for half the league.
Taylor’s greatest individual highlight came at the end of Super Bowl XXIII, when he caught the winning touchdown pass, but Taylor was more than just a single highlight. A two-time Pro Bowler, Taylor caught 347 passes for 5,598 yards in his NFL career, all with San Francisco.
Taylor was also a dangerous punt returner, leading the league in punt return yardage and touchdowns in 1988. He was the perfect accompaniment to Rice—always a threat to go deep, Taylor was the first player to score on two touchdown passes of 90+ yards in one game. A severely underrated player, simply due to being overshadowed by his teammates.
28. Dana Stubblefield, DT, Kansas
Picked in the 1st round of the 1993 draft, 26th overall.
40.32 AV points above average.
With back-to-back picks in the first round of the ’93 draft, the 49ers planned to solve their defensive line issues permanently. They selected Stubblefield and Todd Kelly with consecutive picks. You can’t win them all.
While Kelly will feature on a list of the worst draft picks in 49er history, Stubblefield earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in his first NFL season. Not only was Stubblefield a three-time Pro Bowler, but after the 1997 season, he earned Defensive Player of the Year honors and was named an All-Pro. His 15 sacks were an insane amount for a defensive tackle.
Stubblefield’s 106 games as a starter for San Francisco were enough to put him on this list, even considering his lackluster career post-’97. For five seasons there, Stubblefield was among the greatest in the NFL.
27. Bryant Young, DT, Notre Dame
Picked in the 1st round of the 1994 draft, 7th overall.
41.93 AV points above average.
It’s important to remember this isn’t just a list of draft steals. By this metric, the Colts picking Peyton Manning with the #1 overall pick is the 11th best selection of all-time, simply due to how good he has been. Likewise, calling Young a steal is a bit of a stretch, considering he was a top-10 selection.
But what a selection Young was. The average player taken with the #7 overall pick is a player like Roy Williams; a solid starter who maybe peaks with a Pro Bowl berth at some point. Young made the Pro Bowl four times at defensive tackle and was named first-team All Pro in 1996. He also earned the Comeback Player of the Year in 1999 after breaking his leg at the end of the ’98 season.
Young made the NFL’s All-Decade team in the ‘90s, and is the only defensive tackle on that team not to be in the Hall of Fame. He’s the all-time 49er leader in sacks and a suburb run stopper. He was simply a fantastic player, no matter where on the defensive line he was put.
26. Eric Davis, DB, Jacksonville State
Picked in the 2nd round of the 1990 draft, 53rd overall.
43.68 AV points above average.
Davis started 65 games in his San Francisco career, including Super Bowl XXIX. In the red and gold, Davis had 12 interceptions, and made a Pro Bowl and All-Pro team in 1995, his best season with the club.
He scores highly, however, because of his post-San Francisco career. After ’95, Davis hooked up with the Carolina Panthers and started and additional 78 games, more than doubling his interception total. He’s on the shortlist as one of the best players in Carolina history. Altogether, he put together a 13-year NFL career, making the Pro Bowl twice.
25. Harris Barton, T, North Carolina
Picked in the 1st round of the 1987 draft, 22nd overall.
44.36 AV points above average
Barton was the first offensive lineman the 49ers took in the first round since 1968, and immediately paid off. He was a runner-up as rookie of the year in his first season, and quickly became a fixture at right tackle. Barton started 134 games for the 49ers over his career, including three Super Bowls.
When Steve Young took over the quarterback slot, Barton found himself protecting his quarterback’s blind side. He did so with acclaim—Barton was a first-team All Pro in ’92 and ’93. With a left-handed quarterback, you need a better than usual right tackle, and Barton filled that role admirably.
24. Merton Hanks, DB, Iowa
Picked in the 5th round of the 1991 draft, 122nd overall.
46.46 AV points above average.
It’s all about the neck action.
For four years in the mid-‘90s, Hanks was the top free safety in the game. Between 1994 and 1997, Hanks made the Pro Bowl each and every season, including being named first-team All Pro in 1995. His 31 career interceptions are good for fourth on the 49ers all-time list.
It was the celebratory funky chicken dance which burned him into the memory of ‘90s 49ers fans, but he wasn’t just a flashy dance; Hanks could really play.
23. Don Griffin, DB, Middle Tennessee State
Picked in the 6th round of the 1986 draft, 162nd overall.
46.78 AV points above average.
Griffin ended up starting for eight seasons in San Francisco ending his 49ers career with 22 interceptions, good for ninth all-time. He succeeded Eric Wright at right corner, and clamped down the position for years—quite a success story for a sixth-round pick.
Griffin was solid, but unspectacular, for years, starting every game from 1989 through 1992. While he never had a break-through, Pro-Bowl season, he was a consistent, reliable defender for years.
22. Keith Fahnhorst, T, Minnesota
Picked in the 2nd round of the 1974 draft, 35th overall.
46.81 AV points above average.
Fahnhorst bridged the gap between the Dick Nolan era and the Bill Walsh era, riding out some miserable seasons in between.
Between when Fahnhorst was drafted in 1974 and when he finally retired in 1987, the team went from solid playoff contenders, to 2-14 laughingstocks, all the way back up to multiple Super Bowl champions. All the while, Fahnhorst was a fixture at right tackle, starting 160 games for the team.
1984 was his best season, earning a Pro Bowl berth, an All-Pro selection, and his second Super Bowl ring. While that was an uncharacteristically great season, Fahnhorst was a fixture for over a decade.
21. Kyle Kosier, G, Arizona State
Picked in the 7th round of the 2002 draft, 248th overall.
47.78 AV points above average.
Kosier only lasted three seasons in San Francisco. He did end up as a starter in the second season, bouncing around the left side of the line, but he left the team as a restricted free agent prior to the 2005 season.
It was with Detroit and Dallas that Kosier developed into a regular starter. With the Cowboys, Kosier started 80 games at guard from 2006 through 2011, replacing the legendary Larry Allen. He was an element of stability and versatility on Dallas’ line for years. That’s all you can ask for out of a seventh-round selection.
20. John Ayers, G, West Texas A&M
Picked in the 8th round of the 1976 draft, 223rd overall.
52.53 AV points above average.
Ayers never managed to make the Pro Bowl, but was a key starting member during the first two of the 49ers’ five Super Bowl wins.
Ayers was a fixture at left guard, starting 132 games over 10 years there for the 49ers. A great team player, Ayers won the team’s top offensive lineman award in 1983, which was later re-named the Bobb McKittrick award after the long-time offensive line coach.
19. Fred Quillan, C, Oregon
Picked in the 7th round of the 1978 draft, 175th overall.
52.69 AV points above average.
While former San Francisco GM Joe Thomas left with one of the worst records in 49er history, he can claim one very good draft pick to his resume—Quillan, discovered in the seventh round of Thomas’ second and final draft for the franchise.
Quillan was passed on to the Bill Walsh era, where he started 129 games at center, including the first two 49er Super Bowls. Quillan made the Pro Bowl in back-to-back season in 1984 and 1985, the pinnacle of his career.
18. Michael Carter, NT, SMU
Picked in the 5th round of the 1984 draft, 121st overall.
53.36 AV points above average.
Carter had a pretty good 1984. He took a silver medal at the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles in the shot put, and then was signed to play with the 49ers, earning a Super Bowl ring. He’s the only athlete to win an Olympic medal and a Super Bowl ring in the same season.
As a champion shot putter, you know Carter was strong. He filled the nose tackle position for nine seasons, earning three Pro Bowls and an All-Pro selection along the way. A three-time Super Bowl champion, Carter clogged the middle of the opposing offensive line for years.
17. Guy McIntyre, G, Georgia
Picked in the 3rd round of the 1984 draft, 73rd overall.
54.43 AV points above average.
Two rounds before the team added Carter, the 49ers added another great player in McIntyre.
As a left guard, McIntyre made five consecutive Pro Bowls between 1989 and 1993. During the 97 games McIntyre started in San Francisco, he helped lead the team to two Super Bowl titles—he has three rings, but he was only a reserve his rookie season.
McIntyre is also a two-time winner of the Bobb McKittrick Award, handed to the team’s top offensive lineman. He currently serves as the team’s director of alumni relations.
16. Steve Wallace, T, Auburn
Picked in the 4th round of the 1986 draft, 101st overall.
55.24 AV points above average.
You may be noticing a trend here—for all the press the skill position players received in the ‘80s, the 49ers dynasty was significantly aided by great linemen drafted late.
Wallace is most memorably visually for the Styrofoam helmet topper he wore, due to his troubles with concussions over the years. Wallace started 126 games for the 49ers, including Super Bowls XXIII, XXIV and XXIX.
Wallace’s one Pro Bowl appearance came after the ’92 season, though he would have been a fine candidate throughout the early ‘90s. In 21 seasons playing football, from middle school through the NFL, he never suffered through a losing season.
15. Tommy Hart, DE, Morris Brown
Picked in the 10th round of the 1968 draft, 261st overall.
55.38 AV points above average.
Hart, alongside Cedrick Hardman, formed one of the most devastating pass-rush tandoms in NFL history. While sacks were not an official stat until 1983, the 49ers unofficially record Hart as having 106 sacks in his career, and the ’76 defense, featuring Hart, unofficially recorded 61 sacks, still the team record.
In one game in 1976, Hart recorded six sacks against the Los Angeles Rams. While we’ll never really know for sure just how many sacks he would have officially compiled, he still remains one of the most feared pass rushers in San Francisco history.
14. Dwight Clark, WR, Clemson
Picked in the 10th round of the 1979 draft, 249th overall.
55.82 AV points above average.
Even if Clark had done nothing else in his NFL career other than The Catch, he’d still occupy a hallowed place in 49ers lore.
Clark was more than just one play, however. During his nine seasons in San Francisco, Clark ended up with 506 receptions for 6,750 yards. While he’ll always be slightly overrated in the minds of 49ers fans due to the high-profile nature of his biggest plays, Clark was a legitimate two-time Pro Bowler and one-time All Pro.
Even after retiring, Clark stayed involved with the franchise in the front office, before eventually becoming general manager of the Cleveland Browns.
13. Frank Gore, RB, Miami (FL)
Picked in the 3rd round of the 2005 draft, 65th overall.
53.07 AV points above average; still active.
Gore dropped all the way to the third round due to recovery from a knee surgery. The 49ers are certainly thrilled they took the risk on the recovering Gore.
Gore is the all-time 49ers leader in rushing yards, attempts and touchdowns. He has made the Pro Bowl five times, and should crack the 10,000 yard mark in 2014. While most of his career had him slog through the awful mid-‘00s, the team could always count on Gore to provide great production. He was the highlight in some very dark years.
Gore’s NFL career is winding down, as he will be replaced at some point in the next few seasons by Marcus Lattimore. Hopefully, the team can get him a Super Bowl ring before he retires.
12. Ted Washington, NT, Louisville
Picked in the 1st round of the 1991 draft, 25th overall.
58.86 AV points above average.
Washington only played three seasons with the 49ers, starting 18 games at nose tackle. On a solely San Francisco-based list, Washington wouldn’t be remembered—he was traded to Denver after his third season.
And then, Washington simply kept going. Wallace was still active in 2007, playing 17 seasons at the physically demanding position of nose tackle. Besides the 49ers and Broncos, Washington started for the Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots, scoring 204 starts throughout his career.
He wasn’t just an average starter, either. Washington was named to four Pro Bowls and one All Pro team. While the 49ers did just fine without him, you have to admire Washington’s longevity. He’s been a semifinalist for the NFL Hall of Fame, based solely on his ability to produce throughout his late 30s.
11. Randy Cross, G, UCLA
Picked in the 2nd round of the 1976 draft, 42nd overall.
60.95 AV points above average.
Cross appeared at both center and right guard for the 49ers, starting 180 games in his 13-year career, including three Super Bowls. A three-time Pro Bowler, Cross anchored the interior of the offensive line for years.
Cross did win the Bobb McKittrick award in 1984 as well, the third of his three Pro Bowl nods. He was one of those players who, after suffering through the awful ’78 and ’79 seasons, were rewarded for their patience by sparking the 49ers’ dynasty of the ‘80s.
10. Bill Romanowski, LB, Boston College
Picked in the 3rd round of the 1988 draft, 80th overall.
64.51 AV points above average.
Romanowski’s greatest attribute was his longevity. He managed to play in 243 consecutive games, the all-time record for linebackers. He’s the only linebacker to start in five Super Bowls, XXIII, XXIV, XXXIII and XXXVII.
From a solely 49er-centric perspective, Romanowski would be much lower. While he did end up starting 76 games for the 49ers, it was in Denver that he blossomed into the star player he ended up as, making the Pro Bowl twice.
Longevity is highly rewarded by the AV formula, and 16 years of solid production is more valuable than burning brightly and fading away. While he’ll never be confused with one of the nicest people in the history of the NFL, Romanowski did make an impact on the league for over the decade.
9. Charles Haley, DE, James Madison
Picked in the 4th round of the 1986 draft, 96th overall.
67.64 AV points above average.
One of the most feared pass rushers of all time, and the only player with five Super Bowl rings, Haley was a huge get in the fourth round of the draft.
Playing for both the 49ers and Cowboys, Haley was a dominant force rushing the passer, recording 100.5 sacks in his NFL career. A five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro, Haley’s greatest season came in San Francisco in 1990. That year, he recorded 16 sacks and put up an AV of 20, highest in the league and one of the highest of all-time.
His acerbic personality and confrontations with coaches and teammates have soured public opinion of Haley, but on the field, there were few better. He has been a Hall of Fame finalist each of the last five seasons.
8. Roger Craig, RB, Nebraska
Picked in the 2nd round of the 1983 draft, 49th overall.
70.76 AV points above average.
While Frank Gore has broken most of his individual records, Craig’s versatility in both the running and receiving games keeps him as my choice for best running back in San Francisco history.
Craig is a three time Super Bowl champion. He is the only running back on the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team to not be in the Hall of Fame. He is a four-time Pro Bowler and one-time All Pro. He was the first player in NFL history to run and receive for more than 1,000 yards in the same season.
He was named AP Offensive Player of the Year in ’88, and was strongly considered for MVP that year, as well, picking up the Newspaper Enterprise Association version of the award. Craig retired with 8,189 rushing yards and 4,911 receiving yards.
Craig’s only been a Hall of Fame finalist once, in 2010, but his resume deserves a closer look for induction. He’s not a shoo-in by any stretch of the imagination, but his role in Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense helped define the position that players like Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook later exceled in. A true all-dimension threat.
7. Ronnie Lott, DB, USC
Picked in the 1st round of the 1981 draft, 8th overall.
72.50 AV points above average.
When you have the #8 pick in an NFL draft, history shows you should expect a decent starter—someone who can hold the position down at an adequate level.
Lott is far, far beyond anything a team could rightfully hope for. The Hall of Fame defensive back played ten years for San Francisco and four more around the league, and is considered one of, if not the, best defensive backs in NFL history.
Lott’s a 10-time Pro Bowler. A six-time first-team All Pro. A member of the NFL’s All-Decade teams for both the 1980s and 1990s, as well as their 75th Anniversary All-Time team. He’s the all-time team leader in interceptions with 51. He was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.
He’s only seventh simply because he was drafted so high—everyone above him on this list was drafted later than he was. Lott was simply the best defensive player in 49ers history.
6. Patrick Willis, LB, Mississippi
Picked in the 1st round of the 2007 draft, 11th overall.
47.23 AV points above average; still active.
If anyone has the chance to dethrone Lott as the greatest defensive force San Francisco has ever seen, it’s Willis. He’s made the Pro Bowl in all seven seasons he’s been in the league, and was named a first-team All Pro in five of those years.
He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007, and has only improved since then. If he were to retire right now, and never play another snap in the NFL, he’d be worthy of consideration for the NFL Hall of Fame—and he’s still in his prime. He’ll only be 29 in the 2014 season.
He’s the heart and soul of the defense, and leader of the greatest linebacking corps the team has ever assembled. Canton should be getting a room ready for Willis by the time he’s done; he’s truly an all-time great.
Without any adjustments, Willis is the 22nd greatest draft choice in 49ers history. I’ve gone ahead and projected him out a few more seasons—I don’t think this is too high to put a great player like Willis. He’s above Lott due to the slightly lower draft position. Rising any higher would be difficult, as he was a top-15 pick.
5. Jesse Sapolu, C, Hawaii
Picked in the 11th round of the 1983 draft, 289th overall.
74.57 AV points above average.
Determining who the best “steal” in the history of the team is is a difficult task, as it depends heavily on the definition of what a steal is. Does Montana going in the third-round count as a steal, or do you have to drop past the top 100 selections before truly being a diamond in the rough?
One way or another, Sapolu would count as a fantastic steal. There aren’t even 11 rounds in the draft anymore; getting 154 starts and two Pro Bowls that late in a draft is nearly impossible.
Sapolu is one of six players to earn four Super Bowl rings in San Francisco, as he locked down the center and left guard positions for over a decade. A two-time Bobb McKittrick award winner, Sapolu was a rock in the center of the line for essentially the entire dynasty.
4. Ricky Watters, RB, Notre Dame
Picked in the 2nd round of the 1991 draft, 45th overall.
76.76 AV points above average
Watters might feel high to some—he certainly feels a bit high to me. He was known for a lack of a lack of professionalism, overshadowing his accomplishments on the field.
But what accomplishments they were. Watters finished his career with 10,643 rushing yards and 4,248 receiving yards. That puts him 21st all-time on the yards from scrimmage leaders, ahead of players like Jim Brown and Marvin Harrison. Only two 49ers draftees have gained more yards from scrimmage than Watters—and both will appear later on this list. Also, remember that Watters wasn’t a first-round draft pick, unlike Willis or Lott below him. That gives him a boost.
Watters career is split up pretty clearly into thirds between the 49ers, Eagles and Seahawks. He’s one of only two running backs to ever rush for 1,000 or more yards with three different teams. While in San Francisco, Watters helped the 49ers win Super Bowl XXIX, scoring three touchdowns in that game.
Watters made the Pro Bowl in every season between 1992 and 1996, rushing for more than 1,000 yards seven times in his career.
There is a significant gap between Watters and the top three names on the list. While players like Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman have realistic shots of passing Watters, it will take a huge effort to crack the top three.
3. Terrell Owens, WR, Tennessee-Chattanooga
Picked in the 3rd round of the 1996 draft, 89th overall.
101.76 AV points above average
Speaking of controversial players…
On the field, there have been few better in the history of the game than T.O. Owens ended his career with 15,934 receiving yards on 1,078 receptions. That puts him second all-time in yards and sixth in receptions. He was a six-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All Pro, as well as being named to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s.
Owens is the only player in history to score against all 32 NFL teams. For 11 straight seasons, Owens had six or more touchdowns, an NFL record. He had 14 straight seasons with 750 or more receiving yards, an NFL record. He is the oldest player in NFL history to have a 200-yard receiving game. He holds the San Francisco record for most receptions in a game with 20, in Jerry Rice’s last home game as a 49er.
Of course, we all remember his prima-donna status. The touchdown celebrations, the taunting. We remember the controversies in his spats with Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb. We remember the sharpie in his sock and the posing on the Cowboys’ star.
We also remember the fact that he’s second all-time in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He’s the one on the other end of The Catch II. He alienated himself from the fanbase of every team he played for, but kept getting welcome to new places because of the undeniable and incomparable talents.
Separate the player from the man, and there’s been few better than Owens. He should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he’s first eligible next year.
2. Joe Montana, QB, Notre Dame
Picked in the 3rd round of the 1979 draft, 82nd overall.
104.80 AV points above average
Montana’s legacy needs no introduction.
The question isn’t why Montana is number two, the question is why Montana isn’t number one?
Montana struggled with injuries over the course of his career. He only started 16 games in two seasons in his NFL career. Approximate Value, as a stat, likes players who play for a long time. Montana played almost 40 games less than Terrell Owens, meaning he only squeaks past him in pure value.
He was “only” a great regular season quarterback. His numbers never quite hit the peaks of his top contemporary, Dan Marino, or his successor in San Francisco, Steve Young. Approximate Value does not include postseason success, where Montana was greater than anyone else to ever suit up, so we’re “just” evaluating his great regular seasons.
All that being said, though, by this metric, Montana isn’t only the second best draft pick in 49ers history, he’s the seventh-greatest draft pick in NFL history. It would take a legend of unparalleled greatness to challenge Montana’s spot as the best pick in team history.
1. Jerry Rice, WR, Mississippi Valley State
Picked in the 1st round of the 1985 draft, 16th overall.
122.63 AV points above average
Montana is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. Rice is unarguably the greatest receiver of all time.
In the 1985 NFL Draft, the 49ers made a deal with the New England Patriots. Trading up from the 28th slot, they moved to number 16. The Patriots picked Trevor Matich, who bounced around as a reserve for just over a decade. The 49ers may have come out on top of that one.
Thirteen Pro Bowl appearances. Ten first-team All-Pro nods. Two Offensive Player of the Year awards. A Super Bowl MVP. Member of the All-1980s and All-1990s team. Member of the 75th Anniversary All-Time team.
Rice retired with 22,895 receiving yards and 1,549 receptions. Those aren’t only tops in NFL history, they haven’t even been challenged. Is he the greatest player in NFL history? You can construct the argument.
Rice is the fourth-highest rated draft pick of all time, according to this particular formula, and the other three were all drafted well after him. The top pick was Tom Brady, going in the sixth round in 2000, while Ray Lewis and Brett Favre just squeak past Rice at the end of the first and beginning of the second rounds, respectively. If Peyton Manning has another three or four MVP-caliber seasons left in him, he might catch Rice, as well.
It’s picking nits at that high level. Was Rice technically a draft-day steal? Maybe not. But he is still the greatest pick in San Francisco history—and even if he was selected fourth overall, he would have still out-pointed Montana.