49ers Best Draft Choices of the Decade

We began our look back at the Aughts with a rundown of the biggest draft disappointments of the decade.  It's time to switch over to something a little more positive and check out some of the best draft choices of the past ten years.  As we did with the disappointments, we'll be looking at a combination of production and when they were selected.  Later picks that are especially productive are likely to be bumped up this list, as compared to picks that were first or second round and expected to be productive.

This was actually much more difficult than I thought it would be.  The problem being that the 49ers have had some very solid players come out of the draft, but are they the "best choices."  For example, Vernon Davis is making the leap this year, but I left him off because of his high draft position.  Of course, my list of honorable mentions might cause some folks to blow their stacks.  So, once again, feel free to add your own players to the list.  I didn't include any 2008 and 2009 draft choices in our list of disappointments and will not be including them here either.  For a list of all 49ers draft picks, head over to nfl.com.

Honorable Mention

QB Tim Rattay, 2000, 7th round - This first honorable mention may take some of you by surprise.  Tim Rattay certainly didn't have particularly great numbers with the 49ers.  He best season (2003) saw him make 9 starts and finish with 2,169 yards, 10 TDs, 10 INTs, 60.9%, 78.1 rating.  The team went 1-8 and those numbers aren't exactly fantastic.  I included him on this list because of the context of those numbers: His top 3 receivers that season were TE Eric Johnson, WR Cedrick Wilson and WR Brandon Lloyd.  I'm a huge Eric Johnson fan, but even I can admit that that trio is the proverbial poo poo platter.  If Rattay had been given some decent weapons (say Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, and Josh Morgan), I think he could have been a fairly solid quarterback.  So, given the fact that he was a 7th round pick, I'm willing to call this a really good draft choice.

LS Brian Jennings, 2000, 7th round - Not exactly an exciting first two guys, but hopefully you'll keep reading.  Brian Jennings has turned himself into one of the best long snappers in the game.  Maybe the team could have gotten this just as easily from an undrafted free agent.  However, given the production teams often get out of seventh round picks, I'll give them credit for drafting a guy who has lasted ten years with the team.  Jennings isn't going to win a lot of awards in football, but I think he's worthy of honorable mention.

TE Eric Johnson, 2001, 7th round - Two years, 3 seventh round selections that impressed me.  Some may find this odd, but Eric Johnson will go down as one of my favorite 49ers of the past decade.  I will admit that part of this was due to me selecting him in a keeper league the season he blew up with 82 receptions and 825 yards.  Part of it was due to feeling so bad about how he kept getting hurt and couldn't capitalize on that monster season.  Although the 49ers did not get much more production for him, I think his monster season earns him honorable mention.

OLB Julian Peterson, 2000, 1st round - One might ask why I include Peterson here and Plummer as a potential bust given that they spent the same amount of time with the 49ers and left due to injury issues (Plummer's arthritis and Peterson wasn't given a big extension b/c of some concern over his achilles injury).  I always felt (and this could be a poor perception on my part) that Peterson was a greater "impact" player in his time with the 49ers.  I constantly think back to his performance against Tony Gonzalez when he contained a guy considered the best in the game at that time.  Peterson played all over the place and showed an amazing versatility, moving between defensive end, OLB and safety at different times in a single game.  Given that he and Plummer were acquired through a draft-day deal down, maybe it's more fitting to include them here together.

P Andy Lee, 2004, 6th round - For those who have been longtime readers, you can probably imagine how hard it was for me to not include him in the top 5.  Lee was selected in the sixth round and has become an absolute rock for the 49ers in the punt game.  Lee is the franchise leader in punts and total punting yards.  Among all NFL punters, he's tied for seventh all-time in yards/punt, and while he's "only" 62nd in total punt yards, he's by far the youngest in his part of the list.  By the time his current contract is up, Lee should be in the top 35 all-time.  I know many punters come undrafted, but even still, not too shabby for a 6th round pick.  Thank goodness the team matched the Steelers offer sheet back in 2007.

Conflicted

CB Shawntae Spencer, 2004, 2nd round - I really wasn't sure what to do with Spencer, the former second round pick.  Given his injury issues, and general inconsistencies, it's hard to say he was a great draft choice.  This year saw him rebound rather impressively back into the starting lineup.  If you look back at the corners taken in 2004, one could argue he's still one of the better options from then.  Do folks consider this a "good" draft choice, a "bad" draft choice, or somewhere in between?

5. Arnaz Battle, 2003, 6th round

A lot of people may want to crap on Arnaz Battle now, but there was a time when he was a fairly lone bright spot on an otherwise awful team.  At this point, there is a fairly good chance we've seen the last of Arnaz Battle in a 49ers uniform.  Given that, I'm willing to give him a bit of a boost beyond just honorable mention.  Battle was selected in the middle of the sixth round and proceeded to put up some of the better numbers among 49ers receivers this decade (behind TO of course).  Maybe the competition for #2 receiver of the decade wasn't that great (we'll get to that next week), but it still takes some level of skill to put up solid numbers.  If this is the end of his time as a 49er, he is 26th in receptions, 24th in receiving yards and 30th in touchdowns.  Certainly that's not even remotely great, but for a 6th round pick, they could have done a whole lot worse.

In fact, if you look back at the 2003 draft, Battle was a better option than quite a few of the guys taken ahead of him.  Some might have had better stats, but given when they were taken and what was expected of them, Battle holds up quite well.  Some guys taken ahead of him include first round picks like Charles Rogers and Bryant Johnson.  Johnson has better career numbers but is probably safe to consider a relative bust at this point.  Some second round picks include Bethel Johnson and Tyrone Calico, both of whom appear to be out of the league at this point.  Sure there were some phenomenal talents like Andre Johnson and Anquan Boldin going up there, but this is one time when I think it's fair to cherry pick the sheer level of crap near the top.

It's all the more impressive given Battle's transition to wide receiver in college.  Battle's first two career receptions came his senior season of college and he finished that level of his career with 5 receptions.  He was basically drafted as an "athlete" and he really had to make the conversion at the NFL level.  I know other players have done it with greater success.  But for the purposes of this post, I think Battle deserves some props for that.  I'm sure people will give me crap about this, but in spite of his struggles this season, Arnaz Battle remains a favorite of mine.

4. Parys Haralson, 2006, 5th round

Here's another one where I'm particularly curious about the reaction to this particular choice.  Haralson's selection was definitely benefited by his 5th round selection.  Haralson can certainly make open field tackles, but his primary role is that of a pass rusher.  In his four seasons with the 49ers, his sack totals have gone from 0 to 2.5 to 8.0 to 5.0.  He struggled a bit this past season but I actually thought he finished rather strong.  Maybe not 2008 strong, but not too shabby.  If the 49ers are intent on the 3-man rotation of Haralson, Manny Lawson and Ahmad Brooks, Haralson will be an integral aspect.

Coming out of college, Haralson had actually elevated his stock fairly well, and SI projected him as an early third rounder.  For some reason he stumbled into the fifth round.  Anybody remember any particular reasons for that?  SI's own scouting report points to him as a "classic tweener" and there were concerns about his speed as an outside linebacker (he was a defensive end in college).  Speaking of converted defensive ends, maybe my boy could follow this track once he actually gets healthy (ok maybe that's asking a bit much).

Either way, they got a guy in the fifth round who has turned into a rather solid pass rusher.  He needs to get a bit more consistent, but for a four year pro out of the 5th round, could anybody be disappointed?  If you take a look at that 5th round (and beyond), he's one of the better picks from that point to the end of the draft.  Marques Colston probably gets the honor of best late round pick, but I wouldn't short-shrift Haralson.

3. Patrick Willis, 2007, 1st round

When I was thinking of "best draft choices" I was consistently looking for late round gems that provided an impact to the team.  Guys like Haralson and Battle haven't been super stars, but given their position in the draft, I come away quite pleased with the picks.  And yet, a guy like Patrick Willis deserves his due for a number of reasons.  Obviously big things were expected from him given that he was the 11th pick of the first round.  However, the 49ers have ended up with a guy who might be a once in a generation talent.  His combination of athleticism, potential and immediate production isn't nonexistent in the NFL, but it's pretty good.

Back in 2007 I put together a "day after" post looking at the 49ers picks.  Not too surprisingly, I listed Willis as most likely to succeed with a floor of solid rock in the defense and a ceiling of Hall of Famer.  The last three seasons have him on pace for the latter, although he certainly needs to keep it up in the coming years.  I really don't think it's necessary to go through the numbers again.  It's clear Patrick Willis is a great linebacker and the 49ers really couldn't have asked for anything more out of this first round pick.  The team has had some struggles in getting their first rounders going (see Smith, Alex and Davis, Vernon among others), but there have been no question marks about Willis.  At this point, it's a matter of him developing better instincts when it comes to anticipating the offense and not always having to simply rely on his athleticism to make a play.

Even though Willis was pretty close to a sure thing (an old ESPN poll had him as the least likely to bust from that first round), I think he's still managed to exceed expectations.  Considering how easy it can be for teams to screw up first round choices, I'd say this was a great selection.  Imagine if many of those mocks giving the 49ers Adam Carriker had come true?  Yikes!

2. Eric Heitmann, 2002, 7th round

I almost placed Eric Heitmann #1, but for reasons you'll see below, he'll have to settle for #2.  No matter which position he's in, there's no denying he's turned into a great draft choice for the 49ers.  Heitmann was selected in the seventh round out of Stanford, initially as a guard.  He was able to work his way into the starting lineup, and after an injury his second year, he took hold of a starting guard spot his third year.  In 2006 Heitmann took over at center but broke his leg in the second to last game of the season.  He made a full recovery in time for the next season and really stepped up his play in 2008.  The offensive line as a whole struggled in 2009, but Heitmann has been one positive throughout.

Heitmann appears to have been considered a fairly solid guard coming out of Stanford.  There isn't a ton of info from 2002, but 49ers Paradise does have a draft recap for that season.  On Heitmann, they said:

The 49ers had to wait until the seventh round before they went offensive line. And when they did, they went big guard Eric Heitmann. Heitmann is 6'4", 305 lb and comes from Stanford. He's a good blocker with great agility, and fundamentals. Will need to work on leverage skills and could use anohter 10 pounds or so.

Heitmann will be a welcome addition to the depth along the 49ers offensive line. He will be a solid backup and may see some time towards the end of the year. The 49ers may have big plans for Heitmann in the future, possibly taking Derek Deese's spot.

Although the 49ers grabbed C Cody Wallace in 2008, Heitmann is signed to a very reasonable contract through 2011 and will be anchoring the line for some time.  The team could conceivably move him back to guard at some point, but I'd imagine they'll hold off for now given that a new center would take some time to development (and I don't know if Wallace will be that guy anytime soon, if at all).  Whatever ends up happening with Heitmann, I don't see how anybody could expect more from a 7th round pick.

1. Frank Gore, 2005, 3rd round

When I was first thinking of this topic, Eric Heitmann was my choice for #1 draft choice of the decade, without a doubt.  When I was looking back through the list of 49ers draft picks, I realized I had completely overlooked Frank Gore.  Given how great he has performed for the team, it's easy to forget he was "only" a third round pick back in 2005.  But back in 2005, Frank Gore was considered a risky proposition because of major surgery on both his knees.

Gore blew out his left knee in the spring following his 2001 freshman season after having beat out Willis McGahee for the starting running back job.  After sitting out the subsequent season, Gore returned in 2003 and then blew out his other knee five games into his "sophomore" season.  In 2004 he led the team with 945 yards and came out for the 2005 draft.  In looking back at the recaps of the draft, many folks viewed this pick as a big reach for the 49ers.  I found a projection at SI.com that viewed him as a mid-4th round pick.  Other sites felt that his knee problems simply made it to risky an investment this high.  Throw in some fumble problems in college (that have taken some time to dissipate in the NFL) and it's a wonder he went this high.  It sounds like Gore went pro a year early because his mom was ill with a kidney disease that eventually took her life.  Throw in the fact that he had the injury history, it was probably smart to come out while still healthy.

At the same time, when I heard the pick, I have to say I was a little bit excited.  Certainly not expecting instant impact or anything, but I really liked the upside to the pick.  I'm the same guy who was psyched about the Tai Streets 6th round pick in 1999.  Given how much of a roll of the dice a late around pick can be, it's fun to see a later pick blow up.  And blow up Frank Gore has done.  As we've discussed plenty before, Frank Gore is on pace to be one of the best running backs in 49ers history.  Roger Craig's combination of rushing and receiving might keep at the top of people's lists, but Gore is definitely closing in on joining the argument.  On the franchise list, he's 4th in rushing yards, 7th in rushing touchdowns and 15th in receptions.  Not too shabby for a guy with a pair of bum knees and shoulders (after his rookie year he had surgery on both shoulders).

If you haven't figured it out yet, his rise in the franchise ranks is why he's #1 over Eric Heitmann.  Heitmann has been very solid during his time with the 49ers, but Frank Gore could finish his time with the 49ers as the best running back in franchise history.  It's too soon to say this for sure, and I know some folks see him breaking down sooner rather than later, but I wouldn't bet again him.

Oh, and just for fun, the five running backs selected ahead of Frank Gore: Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams, JJ Arrington, and Eric Shelton.  In a re-draft, I'd argue Gore belongs ahead of all of them.  Brown has been solid but hasn't been able to stay healthy.  Gore leads all of them in yards and yards per carry, and considering the talent he's often been surrounded with, that's saying something.  Behind Gore, the only running backs in the argument are Brandon Jacobs and Marion Barber (selected back to back in the 4th round..  Both are solid, but I'll take Gore every day of the week.

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