The San Francisco 49ers have been one of the most consistent and successful NFL franchises over the past three years. Since general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh took over the reigns in 2011, the team has gone 36-11-1, appeared in three-straight NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. While they have yet to win a championship under the current regime, the window is still open as they will go into 2014 as one of the odds-on favorites to win it all.
To look at how the 49ers have gotten to this point, you would need to look no further than the NFL draft. The team has done an excellent job shaping their roster through the draft and have taken impact players on both sides of the ball. The groundwork was laid in the seasons prior to Ballke and Harbaugh when selections of players like Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Joe Staley were made, however, it’s the picks that have been made in recent years that have helped push the franchise near the top. In this four part series, we will look at the 49ers and their drafts under Baalke and (eventually) Harbaugh.
We begin in 2010, when Baalke had taken over the draft after Scott McCloughan was let go of his duties. While Baalke did not officially hold the title of general manager, he did oversee the 2010 selections.
Anthony Davis, Tackle, Rutgers
That was then: Baalke set a precedent for how he would attack the draft with his very first selection. The 49ers traded a fourth round pick to the Denver Broncos to move up two spots in order to secure Davis at number 11. Davis was described as a physical tackle with a great combination of size (6’5 323 lbs) and athleticism but was still raw in some aspects of his game. He started 32 games as Rutgers but, at 20-years-old, was seen as a player with updside who may need to develop before making an impact at the next level.
This is now: When words like “raw” and “upside” are used to describe a player, the general thought is that they would need time to develop. Davis was inserted into the lineup right away and has started 64 straight games at right tackle. Davis did struggle initially as a rookie as he was the only offensive tackle with double digit penalties, sacks allowed, and quarterback hits allowed during the 2010 season. Davis put his tough first season behind him, has emerged as one of the better right tackles in the league, and is a borderline Pro Bowler at only 24 years old. He can be dominant in the running game and has improved as a pass blocker. The 49ers rewarded him with a 5-year, $37 million dollar contract extension in April of 2013 to keep him in San Francisco for the foreseeable future.
Mike Iupati, Guard, Idaho
That was then: Iupati was regarded as the best guard prospect in the 2010 draft. A mauling, road grader type blocker, Iupati may have been one of the safest picks in terms of pro potential. At 6’5 and 331 pounds, he was another massive offensive lineman to pair with Davis as the 49ers moved forward solidifying a blocking unit that gave up 40 sacks in 2009.
This is now: In four seasons with the 49ers, Iupati has been an anchor in a running game that has finished in the top four in the NFL over the past two seasons and has gained over 2,000 yards in every year from 2011-2013. He has two Pro Bowl selections (2012, 2013) and was a first team All-Pro in 2012. Iupati is entering the final year of his rookie contract in 2014 and while he has been one of the top guards in the NFL, the 49ers have to decide whether or not they can keep him and also re-sign some of their other impending free agents.
Taylor Mays, Safety, USC
That was then: Mays was seen by many as a better athlete than football player. His blend of size (6’3, 240 lbs) and speed was tantalizing but his tendency to take bad angles when attempting tackles and sloppy fundamentals in pass coverage made him a liability at times. There were also some questions about his maturity level.
This is now: It was rumored that then head coach Mike Singletary lobbied for this pick and that would make sense considering Mays was shipped out of San Francisco shortly after Harbaugh arrived in 2011. Mays was dealt to the Cincinnati Bengals for a seventh round pick and has had little impact with them since, only starting four games over three seasons. The pick hurts a little more when you consider the rival Seattle Seahawks selected Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor in the fifth round, 84 picks after Mays.
NaVorro Bowman, linebacker, Penn State
That was then: Bowman was said to be an average-sized linebacker that had some durability issues while at Penn State. There was also some concern as to whether or not he could take on and shed blockers, given his smaller frame (6’0, 242 lbs). On the plus side, he was considered an athletic, sideline-to-sideline linebacker who was also good in pass coverage. He had natural football instincts that allowed him to react quickly to plays as they unfolded.
This is now: Bowman is arguably the best draft pick Baalke has made, especially when you look at it in terms of value in the third round. Since Bowman took over the starting job in 2011, he has been a first-team All-Pro in every season and made the Pro Bowl twice (2012, 2013). This past season, you could argue that he was the best defensive player in football, as he racked up 145 tackles to go along with 5.0 sacks and six forced turnovers. He was also named Defensive Player of the Month for his performance in December. During that time he was the only player in the last 20 years to record at least 45 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, an interception return for a touchdown, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery in one calendar month.
The best of the rest
Without a pick in rounds four and five, the 49ers had to wait until the sixth before they were slotted to make another selection. They ultimately came away with two role players in running back Anthony Dixon and wide receiver Kyle Williams. Dixon is a solid special teams player who was also inserted to return some kicks in 2013. Mainly used in short yardage on offense, Dixon has scored eight touchdowns in four seasons. Williams would catch 47 passes over three-plus seasons with the 49ers but was cut in 2013. He will always be remembered for his nightmare performance in the 2011 NFC Championship game that cost the team a trip to the Super Bowl.
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