On the eve of the 2013 NFL Draft, we close out our 49ers Draft Rewind with a look at the best 49ers draft class of the past ten years.
It wasn't easy to decide between this draft and the class of 2007, but the choice is not without valid reasoning. We don't have to turn the pages too far back for the draft class that takes the number one spot. It's a draft that quickly made an indelible mark on the franchise, signaling the beginning of a new era of 49ers football under Jim Harbaugh. (Ladies?) and gentlemen....
The 2011 San Francisco 49ers (cue confetti)
The 49ers were in an extremely precarious situation heading into the 2011 draft. They recently acquired a brand new head coach by the name of Jim Harbaugh, and promoted vice president of player personnel, Trent Baalke, to general manager. Their longtime quarterback under fire, Alex Smith, was not signed for the 2011 season. All of this occurred during a locked out offseason. The cards were stacked against the Niners. What would they do at quarterback? It was clear Alex Smith was not the answer by a long shot, but how could they draft and prep a rookie quarterback when the coaching staff didn't have access to its players? Furthermore, the 2011 class didn't boast any early first round talent at the quarterback position outside of Cam Newton; so a pick at number seven would be a huge reach with great potential to bite them in the backside.
Despite the new excitement surrounding the Harbaugh hire, it appeared as if the 49ers would have to take a "mulligan" on the 2011 season before things improved.
Round 1, pick 7: Aldon Smith - Defensive End, Missouri
Round 2, pick 4: Colin Kaepernick - Quarterback, Nevada
Round 3, pick 12: Chris Culliver - Cornerback, South Carolina
Round 4, pick 18: Kendall Hunter - Running Back, Oklahoma State
Round 5, pick 32: Daniel Kilgore - Guard, Appalachian State
Round 6, pick 17: Ronald Johnson - Wide Receiver, USC
Round 6, pick 25: Colin Jones - Safety, TCU
Round 7, pick 8: Bruce Miller - Defensive End, Central Florida
Round 7, pick 36: Mike Person, Offensive Tackle, Montana State
Round 7 pick 47: Curtis Holcomb - Cornerback, Florida A&M
I admit it. I was not happy with the Aldon Smith pick. As someone with very limited knowledge of the college game, I was unfamiliar with him and worried he may be too much of a project for a team that needed immediate answers. Well, I was dead wrong. Smith was one of the best picks in the entire 2011 draft and made an immediate impact in his rookie campaign.
All in all, the 49ers played everything perfectly. They dedicate their first selection to arguably the most explosive, game-changing sack artist in the league. Then in the second round, they set their sights on a franchise quarterback and made sure to trade up to secure him. A solid nickel corner with the upside to be a starter taken in the third, a crucial change of pace/complementary running back in the fourth and lastly, they nab a defensive end in the seventh and convert him into a fullback in an abbreviated offseason. That selection and rapid transformation of Miller is one of the most cerebral accomplishments in 49er draft history, in my opinion.
Smith, Hunter, Culliver, and Miller contributed mightily in their first NFL seasons, and were a large part of the 49ers run to the NFC Championship game. Those players bundled short-term impact with long-term upside. You couldn't ask for anything more. This important factor, coupled with gaining a franchise quarterback, is why I chose 2011 over 2007.
What went right
Oh, so many, many things, but let's start with an important precursor to the draft. Although it was a huge gamble for Jim Harbaugh to hitch his wagon to Alex Smith after his predecessors had died by the sword of number 11, he did so anyway. Confident in his ability to develop quarterbacks, he took on the challenge knowing it was the best (and possibly only) viable answer at quarterback during a locked-out offseason. He also recognized that Smith's greatest attributes were his intelligence and work ethic. Entrusting Smith with the playbook, and the task of teaching it to the team during "Camp Alex", instilled confidence in the quarterback and greatly mitigated the hindrance posed by the lockout.
But, Steve, why are you dedicating so much screen space to Alex Smith if we're talking about the 2011 draft?
Why? Because this move laid the necessary foundation for drafting Colin Kaepernick and serves as another reason why this draft is the team's best of the decade. Harbaugh knew that he could get something out of Smith and likely felt that much of the quarterback's maligned past was due to a revolving door of poor coordinators and head coaches who threw him under the bus. Knowing that, the 49ers didn't have to worry about throwing a rookie quarterback into the fire, which allowed them the grace period Kaepernick's development would necessitate. In a cruel twist of fate, Alex Smith's tenure as starter allowed Kaepernick time to mature and learn- a luxury Smith was never afforded as a rookie in 2005.
But let's rewind back to the 49ers' first selection. Aldon Smith was another calculated risk that paid off. Although the selection drew jeers from much of the 49ers Faithful masses, it was exactly what an already solid 49ers defense needed to put the unit over the top. Void of a consistent, threatening pass rush, the 49ers grabbed a guy that they immediately plugged in as a dominant, situational pass rusher. The addition of Smith was a tremendous help to the back end of that defense and translated to a league-leading amount of turnovers for the Niner defense in 2011.
Grabbing an all-star pass rusher and franchise quarterback alone would be enough to label this draft a grand slam, but the 49ers didn't stop there. Culliver garnered significant playing time as a nickel corner and performed incredibly well for a third round rookie. Hunter, meanwhile, finally gave San Francisco the sorely needed complement to Frank Gore that had evaded them for the past few years. Daniel Kilgore appears to be developing into a solid, versatile backup player on the offensive line, which is great value for a fifth rounder. Ronald Johnson was a whiff in the sixth round but with all the success of the previous picks, it's an easily forgivable miss. Colin Jones was a strong special teams performer as a rookie, and the 49ers then deal him for a 2014 seventh round draft pick from the Carolina Panthers.
Bruce Miller may be the most remarkable story of this draft. In just a few short months, he was able to convert from defensive end at a small school in Florida, to a starting NFL fullback paving running lanes for Frank Gore. That's an outstanding feat on his behalf as well as the coaching staff's. Mike Person was waived before the 2012 season began and never saw the field for San Francisco, but he was a seventh rounder after all. Curtis Holcomb was a victim of ill-timed injury. The safety ruptured his Achilles before the start of the 2011 season and was released during the 2012 preseason.
Best individual pick
Kaepernick. For all the magic that Harbaugh worked with Alex Smith, it's clear that he intended for the seven-year vet to be nothing more than an extremely successful stopgap solution while redshirting Kaepernick. The results were loud in clear in 2012, as Kaepernick took over by midseason and set the league on fire en route to a Super Bowl run. Kudos to Baalke for moving up in the second round to get the kid. The 49ers now have a dynamic, young quarterback playing for less than one million dollars in 2013. Cheers to Harbaugh for not losing sight of Kaepernick and hislong-term plan once Alex Smith started turning heads and playing like a top ten quarterback.
So there you have it: the 49ers' best and worst drafts of the decade. I hope you enjoyed reading the series as much as I did in putting it together. Please be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section and voice your opinion in the poll.