Closing out the midpoint of the series, we take a look at the runner up for the title of "Best 49ers draft of the past decade". Choosing between this and number one was a laborious task, but there was some solid thought and rationale behind slotting them the way that I did. The draft class that comes in at number two has yielded some fantastic results and is a cornerstone of the team's current success ...
The 2007 San Francisco 49ers
At the time, the Niners were coming off of a promising 2006 campaign. Despite a 7-9 record, the 49ers finished strong, knocking Denver out of a playoff spot with a thrilling overtime win at Mile High. Under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, second year quarterback Alex Smith progressed admirably from a disastrous rookie season in which he threw only one touchdown and 11 interceptions. Unfortunately, Norv Turner couldn't stick around to see the job through as he accepted a head coaching job with the San Diego Chargers in February 2007, dealing the Niners a crushing blow in the process. Jim Hostler was subsequently promoted to offensive coordinator.
Round 1, pick 11: Patrick Willis - Linebacker, Ole Miss
Round 1, pick 28: Joe Staley - Offensive Tackle, Central Michigan
Round 3, pick 12: Jason Hill - Wide Receiver, Washington St.
Round 3, pick 34: Ray McDonald - Defensive End, Florida
Round 4, pick 5: Jay Moore - Defensive End, Nebraska
Round 4, pick 27: Dashon Goldson - Safety, Washington
Round 4, pick 36: Joe Cohen - Defensive Tackle, Florida
Round 5, pick 10: Tarell Brown - Cornerback, Texas
Round 6, pick 12: Thomas Clayton - Running Back, Kansas State
This is the kind of draft the 49ers would like to emulate later this week. The 2007 class boasts a future hall of famer, two Pro Bowl players, and two very talented starters. All five contributed mightily to the 2012 Super Bowl campaign. In another possible parallel to this year's draft, the 49ers traded up to get a second pick in the first round, selecting Joe Staley at 28. While the 49ers struck gold in this draft, it had little to no effect on their 2007 season. The team finished 5-11 (how on Earth did they even manage to get those five wins?) and was utterly inept on offense under Jim Hostler's embarrassing playcalling.
What went right
As much as he blundered, you have to tip your hat to old Scottie McCloughan on this one. He was supposedly very high on Willis and pushed for that to be the pick at number eleven. The rest, as they say, is history. Another applause-worthy move was the audacious trade up for Staley. The 49ers were in need of some serious upgrades along the offensive line with Jonas Jennings annually nursing one ailment or another, Larry Allen approaching retirement and Kwame Harris being ... well, Kwame Harris. Staley plugged into the starting lineup at right tackle, before transitioning to the left side the following year. Jason Hill had his opportunities in San Francisco and elsewhere, but never delivered upon the flashes that he displayed on the practice field. Ray McDonald struggled with some injuries early on but always seemed to have a knack for making big plays when he did see the field. Once Aubrayo Franklin left for New Orleans, McDonald got his chance and has thrived in his role on the left side of the defensive line.
You can't hit on every pick though, and Jay Moore and Joe Cohen stand as a testament to this. Neither one caught on or saw playing time (in Moore's defense, he missed his entire rookie season with an injury), and both were off the team by 2009. Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown, however, were phenomenal late-round picks for the Niners. Goldson took a couple years before cracking into the starting lineup but now he's coming off of back-to-back pro bowl seasons, all-pro honors in 2012, and just earned a huge pay day in Tampa. Upon Jim Harbaugh's arrival in 2011, Tarell Brown was named starting right cornerback and has not relinquished the role since. He has 11 career interceptions and continues to be a solid corner despite his smaller frame. Lastly, we have Thomas Clayton: Mr. Preseason Superstar himself. Clayton led the league in preseason rushing in 2007 and placed in the top five in 2008, but none of this translated to the regular season. He was waived after a 2009 ACL injury and has bounced around to five different teams since 2010.
Best individual pick
Willis is the best player in the league at his position, so I have to take him when making this distinction. However, if we're talking about best "pick" and not best "player", there could be some validity behind selecting Joe Staley. That was a more difficult move to make, in my opinion. Willis was the consensus pick at number eleven after a remarkable career at Ole Miss (remember him wreaking havoc with a broken hand). Staley was a highly rated prospect but he was coming out of a small school (Central Michigan) and actually began his collegiate career as a tight end. I'm sticking with Willis as my pick of course, but sliding up to nab Staley warrants some praise and consideration here, as does getting an all-pro safety in the fourth round.
That does it for round two. Which 49er draft classes will take home the trophies for best and worst of the past decade? Stay tuned tomorrow and Wednesday to find out!