Not a lot of teams can say they shaped the future of their franchise by taking a dominant pass rusher and franchise quarterback with their first two picks in a draft. The San Francisco 49ers did just that in 2011 when they took a chance on a defensive end from Missouri and an unconventional quarterback from Nevada. The draft would help catapult a talented but underachieving team into the title picture under the guidance of new head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Aldon Smith, Defensive end, Missouri
That was then: The selection of Smith with the seventh overall pick was a bit of a surprise. The 49ers had been linked to cornerbacks like Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara but went with the Missouri defensive end (Peterson was already off the board when the 49ers picked). Smith played in a 4-3 defense at Missouri and while he had shown an ability to get to the quarterback in college, he would be learning to be an outside linebacker in San Francisco’s 3-4 scheme. How he made this transition would determine whether or not Smith would be successful at the next level.
This is now: Any doubts about Smith’s transition to a 3-4 were gone almost instantly as he proved to be a dominant pass rusher almost immediately. Playing primarily on passing downs, Smith set a 49ers’ record with 14.0 sacks as a rookie. Smith took on a full-time role in 2012 and recorded 19.5 sacks which gave him an NFL record 33.5 over his first two seasons. He was named 49ers’ team MVP in 2012 for his efforts. Despite his talents, Smith ran into trouble in 2013, missing five games to enter a rehab facility for substance abuse. He returned to the team mid-season and still managed a decent year with 8.5 sacks. Smith also still faces an upcoming court date to deal with weapons charges. Smith is now eligible to be signed to an extension but it remains to be seen if the 49ers will want to make a long term commitment given his off-the-field issues.
Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback, Nevada
That was then: Because he played in a pistol offense at Nevada, Kaepernick was seen as a project quarterback coming out of college. The consensus was that he would need time to develop while learning the pro game. While he displayed a strong arm and excellent mobility, Kaepernick was not asked to make NFL progressions and reads in college which would put him behind the eight ball. There was criticism of his delivery and accuracy on short passes as well.
This is now: Kaepernick sat behind Alex Smith for a season and a half before stepping in for the veteran after he was sidelined with a concussion. Kaepernick surprised everyone by dissecting the Chicago Bears to the tune of 243 yards and two touchdowns in a 32-7 win on national television. Kaepernick was named the starter going forward shortly thereafter and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012. He hit some bumps in the road in 2013, going through a nine game stretch of games in which he averaged 154 yards passing and only completed 53.7 percent of his passes. The 49ers were 5-4 during that stretch. Kaepernick would rebound, however, and finish the season on a strong note as the 49ers won their last six regular season games. His solid play continued into the playoffs as he helped the team reach the NFC Championship game for the third consecutive year before faltering in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks with three turnovers. Despite the rough end, Kaepernick is a quarterback on the rise who the 49ers will most likely give a big contract extension soon. He is 21-8 as a starter including the playoffs and his three postseason road wins are more than Joe Montana and Steve Young combined.
Chris Culliver, Defensive back, South Carolina
That was then: Culliver was a defensive back who was versatile enough to play either corner or safety. The former Gamecock was athletic and fluid in his play but did not display natural football instincts. Another critique was that he struggled in run support and did a poor job of anticipating routes. Most pundits saw Culliver as a mid-round selection and thought the 49ers made a big reach for him in the third round.
This is now: Culliver surprised a lot of people by playing well in his first two seasons with the 49ers. He was a key contributor on defense, playing mostly in nickel situations. Culliver played more than 75 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in the 2012 playoffs and had a big interception in the comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game. Culliver fell on hard times from there though, as he played poorly in the Super Bowl and also got national attenation with anti-gay comments he made prior to the game. To make matters worse, Culliver missed all of 2013 with a knee injury. Despite the setbacks, Culliver appears to still be in San Francisco’s plans moving forward and could be a starter in 2014 if he proves to be healthy.
Best of the rest:
Needing a number two option behind starter Frank Gore, the 49ers took running back Kendall Hunter in the 4th round out of Oklahoma State. Hunter has been productive in that role, gaining 1,202 yards on 4.6 yards a carry and scoring seven touchdowns in limited action over three seasons. The 49ers also struck gold in the seventh round by taking fullback Bruce Miller from Central Florida. Miller has been a good blocker and, while not getting many carries thus far (16 in his career), he has been a valuable option in the passing game, hauling in 48 passes out of the backfield. The jury is still out on former Appalachian State offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore, who has been regulated to backup duty and some short yardage packages. He could be in play to complete for the team’s starting center position as Jonathan Goodwin is unlikely to be back in 2014.
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