At this point, I'd argue the top three draft successes are really quite close. It's just as much 1a, 1b, and 1c as it is one, two and three. Each of the remaining three is on this list for a different reason, but I actually think you could make arguments for all three as possible number ones on this list.
In 2007, the San Francisco 49ers used a first round pick (11th overall) to select linebacker Patrick Willis out of the University of Mississippi. Although there had been a few players discussed as possibilities at the eleventh pick, just about everybody was quite pleased with the selection of Willis. You can read my own thoughts in that link, as well as those of our small contingent of readers back in 2007. On a side note, it's quite amusing to read my writing back then and compare it to now. I think I've improved over that time, but that's my own opinion.
When dealing with a first round pick it's easy to say, "Well he was supposed to be good." If Willis was a solid but not great linebacker he would probably not be on this list. However, as we are all aware, the man Ocho Cinco nicknamed Bamm Bamm is just a slight tick above "solid." As 49ers fans, we knew we were in for great things when he set the single season tackle record (a funky record since tackles are often different between team and league record books) as a rookie.
From day one Bamm Bamm has been among the league's elite linebackers. Since debuting in 2007, Willis has been named First Team All-Pro three times (2007, 2009-10) and Second Team All-Pro the other season (2008). His tackle totals through four years are quite impressive, but the counter argument is that he has more opportunities due to porous aspects of the rest of the 49ers defense. Even if that's the case, he still takes advantage of his opportunities and generally does not miss on tackles (generally, not always).
What I enjoy most about Patrick Willis is his crazy athleticism. We've seen him run down great running backs like Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson. We've seen him make some big sacks and big interceptions. And we've seen what remains my favorite play of his brief career: running down Cardinals wide receiver Sean Morey in a play that saved the 49ers bacon in a 2007 overtime victory. It was a great combination of his speed and determination and personifies what Patrick Willis brings to the table.
Although much of the story of Patrick Willis is still left to be told, he's well on his way to going down as the greatest overall linebacker in 49ers history, and one of the best in NFL history. He's shown an ability to make tackles and track down ball carriers. Since exploding on the scene his rookie year, Willis has improved other areas of his game, particularly in pass coverage. Additionally, he's shown that his athleticism translates to pass rushing as he was second on the team in sacks last season. It's going to be rather interesting to see how Vic Fangio utilizes Patrick Willis in his defense going forward. He hasn't coached many linebackers like Patrick Willis in his career.
49ers Top 10 NFL Draft Successess
3. Patrick Willis - 2007 NFL Draft
4. Terrell Owens - 1996 NFL Draft
5. Eric Heitmann - 2002 NFL Draft
6. Fred Beasley - 1998 NFL Draft
7. Jeremy Newberry - 1998 NFL Draft
8. Lee Woodall - 1994 NFL Draft
9. Arnaz Battle - 2003 NFL Draft
10. Andy Lee, Punter - 2004 NFL Draft
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