With the 2015 NFL Draft rapidly approaching, I figured it would be a good time to put aside the countless number of mock drafts, the multitude of articles on the same top prospects, and speculation on pre-draft visits for just a bit in favor of another draft-season staple: redrafts.
I’ve spent a good amount of time this offseason discussing Trent Baalke and his tenure as the 49ers general manager, and redrafts allow us to expand that conversation in more lighthearted manner. So over the course of the next week, I’ll be pushing the reset button on each of Baalke’s draft classes with the benefit of hindsight, beginning with the 2010 class today.
A couple of notes before we get going. First, try not to read these as "ZOMG BAALKE IS THE WORST LOOK AT ALL THESE PLAYERS HE MISSED!!" Every GM is going to look pretty bad in this exercise and no one manages to select the best possible player available with each of their picks. Think of these redrafts as a vehicle that allows us to take a quick snapshot of each 49ers’ draft pick over the past five seasons and how their careers have turned out thus far while also getting to have a little bit of what-if fun by looking at other players who happened to be available at the time.
Most redrafts tend to focus on the first round after tossing the entire class back into the draft pool. Because I have no interest in doing a full seven-round redraft and our goals are to look specifically at the 49ers’ selections rather than the draft class as a whole, ours is going to work a bit differently. So for each of the 49ers’ selections, the pool of players I’m considering as redraft candidates are the players selected between that selection and San Francisco’s next pick in the draft. For example, in 2010 the 49ers took Anthony Davis with the No. 11 overall pick. Their next pick was at No. 17 overall. So the players I’m looking at as possibilities to replace Davis are those taken from No. 12 to No. 16 overall.
With the preamble out of the way, let’s get started.
Round 1 (11th overall): OT Anthony Davis, Rutgers
Davis was inserted into the starting lineup at right tackle from day one, and through five seasons you can argue he has played out the best-case scenario for what many thought his career could be entering the draft. Draftniks pegged Davis as a high-variance prospect, possessing more physical talent than any other lineman in his class but still a bit raw — Davis was one of the youngest players in this class at just 20 years old — with questions regarding his work ethic and competitiveness.
The payoff wasn’t immediate — Davis struggled immensely during his first two seasons in the league, particularly in pass protection — but the 49ers stuck with the young tackle, keeping him in the starting unit and allowing him to work through those issues on the field. Under the tutelage of offensive line coach Mike Solari, Davis developed into one of the best right tackles in football by his third season and was instrumental in the dominant rushing attack that defined the peak of the Harbaugh era.
After starting all 64 regular season games during his first four seasons, Davis suffered through myriad injuries in 2014, keeping him out of 11 contests. Davis’s absence on the right side was unmistakable. The revolving door that was Jonathan Martin had Colin Kaepernick running for his life far too often and exacerbated the other injuries on the interior of the line. A return to health for Davis will go a long ways toward improvement up front in 2015.
Though many might argue the 11th overall selection is too high for a right tackle, the distinction between left and right tackles has become increasingly blurred in recent seasons. With defenses moving their top pass rushers around far more frequently, the idea that right tackles need only to be road graders is a bit antiquated. Davis has combined with Joe Staley to give the 49ers one of the better tackle tandems in football, and it’s hard to argue with Baalke nabbing a player of his caliber with the first draft pick of his tenure. And considering Davis is still only 25 years old, he’s only just entering the peak of his career making it possible the best of Anthony Davis is yet to come.
Re-Draft Pick: S Earl Thomas, Texas
No slight to Davis, but it would be impossible to pass up on one of the best defenders in football if given a mulligan here. In many ways, Thomas has single-handedly changed the way NFL teams value safeties in recent seasons. No defender covers more ground in the middle of the field nor is another safety capable of erasing the mistakes of his teammates quite like Thomas. Though the scheme Vic Fangio would bring to the 49ers defense a year later isn’t quite the match made in football heaven for Thomas that Pete Carroll’s system has been in Seattle, it seems fair to assume adjustments would have been made to accommodate a player of Thomas’s caliber.
Round 1 (17th overall): OG Mike Iupati, Idaho
Iupati has been exactly what draftniks expected him to be coming out of college — a dominant run blocker that could step in as an immediate starter on the interior. Though Anthony Davis has developed into a more complete player, Iupati has been the more accomplished lineman of San Francisco’s 2010 first-round duo through five seasons. With three Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro selection on his résumé, Iupati has built a reputation as one of the best guards in football.
Iupati cashed in on that reputation this offseason when he received a sizable contract from the Cardinals, making him one of the NFL’s highest-paid guards. Iupati’s departure brings an added element of uncertainty to the interior of San Francisco’s offensive line that hasn’t existed recently. Even if the talent drop-off from Iupati to redshirt-guard Brandon Thomas — or whoever else winds up starting at left guard — doesn’t turn out to be drastic, there’s likely to be some growing pains early on while this unit learns to play together and develops the level of continuity that allowed San Francisco’s offensive line to have so much success in 2012 and 2013.
Re-Draft Pick: WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State
At the time, it would be difficult to imagine Baalke spending another first-round pick on a wide receiver a year after selecting Michael Crabtree with the no. 10 overall selection. But given what we know now, the opportunity to add a bonafide no. 1 receiver like Dez Bryant is too tantalizing to ignore. Bryant wasn’t without his question marks after missing the final 10 games of his final college season due to suspension, but let’s be real, it’s not like off-field concerns have prevented the 49ers from taking chances on players in the past.
It’s safe to say Bryant would have quelled the numerous pleas from the 49ers’ fanbase over taking a receiver at the top of the draft that have popped up nearly every season Baalke has been running the show. Bryant’s combination of size and speed is matched by few players at the position and he still has several seasons of peak production ahead of him.
There were quite a few others that would have been strong considerations at this spot. Demaryius Thomas and Lamarr Houston both went off the board between no. 17 and the 49ers’ next selection at no. 49. But the most enticing option outside of Bryant would have to be Rob Gronkowski, who wound up going early in the second round at the no. 42 overall selection. The combination of Gronkowski and Vernon Davis terrorizing the middle of defenses is certainly an enticing proposition, but the presence of Davis on the roster is enough to push me towards Bryant here.
Round 2 (49th overall): S Taylor Mays, USC
Mays was the sort of size-speed freak that blows people away at the Combine, but he was never able to translate those physical tools into on-field production. He wound up starting six games during the middle of his rookie campaign, but quickly played himself off the field. Baalke and the new coaching staff cut ties with Mays the following offseason, replacing him with Donte Whitner in free agency.
Mays has managed to hang on to the bottom of rosters as a special teams contributor, first with the Bengals and now with the Vikings. But needless to say, the Southern Cal product never delivered on the promise that made him a top–50 selection.
Re-Draft Pick: OT Jared Veldheer, Hillsdale
After skipping over Davis and Iupati in this first round, we’re able to add Joe Staley’s bookend at no. 49 with the addition of Veldheer. Much like Davis, Veldheer began his career as a stronger run blocker than pass protector and struggled to keep his quarterback upright during a rough rookie campaign. Veldheer would quickly round into form in Year Two. You wouldn’t necessarily know it as he toiled away as the best player on perennially terrible Raiders teams, but Veldheer developed into tackle of similar quality to Davis and was available nearly 60 picks later.
Round 3 (91st overall): LB NaVorro Bowman, Penn State
From both a production and value standpoint, picking up Bowman in the latter portion of the third round represents the best draft pick of Baalke’s tenure. After spending his rookie season on the bench behind Takeo Spikes, Bowman was inserted into the starting lineup alongside Patrick Willis in his second year and immediately became one of the best inside linebackers in football. Bowman’s first three seasons as a starter resulted in three consecutive first-team All-Pro selections, the last of which garnered Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
Bowman, of course, sat out the entirety of the 2014 season after suffering a gruesome knee injury in the NFC Championship loss to the Seahawks. His return to pre-injury form will be crucial after the surprise retirements of Willis and Chris Borland this offseason, which seams reasonable to expect considering by the time the 2015 regular season rolls around Bowman will be 20 months removed from the injury.
Re-Draft Pick: LB NaVorro Bowman, Penn State
Even with nearly three full rounds worth of players between Bowman and the 49ers’ next selection, there are few players to choose from that approach Bowman’s caliber. Jimmy Graham was selected four picks later. Alterraun Verner and Geno Atkins both went off the board in the fourth round. Kam Chancellor was selected with the second pick of the fifth round. Ultimately, Bowman is still the obvious choice here.
Round 6 (173rd overall): RB Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State
Boobie Dixon managed to stick around on the 49ers roster for four seasons, a fairly impressive feat on its own for a sixth-round pick. Dixon actually got his most extensive work rushing the ball in his rookie season, splitting time with Brian Westbrook behind Frank Gore. His 70 carries that year were more than he’d receive over his final three seasons combined in San Francisco, in which he was used sparingly as a short-yardage and goal-line option.
Practically every year Dixon spent with the team — with Baalke bring on running back after running back in the draft — it felt like he was going to get cut in training camp. Each year he managed to hang on, providing value on special teams and offering to move to fullback to improve his odds at making the roster. His time finally came last offseason, but it’s hard to ask too much more from a player selected no. 173 overall.
Re-Draft Pick: DE Greg Hardy, Mississippi
Hardy had plenty of concerns entering the draft, but they were limited to questions regarding his effort on the field and commitment to the game rather than the indefensible off-field problems that have threatened to derail his professional career.
From a purely on-field perspective, there’s no one else among our available players at this spot that approaches Hardy’s talent level. He’s a top-notch pass rusher, and though he’s certainly a better fit as a 4–3 defensive end, there were some at the time of the draft that suggested he was capable of making the transition to 3–4 outside linebacker. Ultimately, while Hardy isn’t necessarily a player I’d enjoy rooting for, his potential reward was probably worth the risk this late in the draft.
Round 6 (182nd overall): TE Nate Byham, Pittsburgh
Not much to discuss here. Byham’s playing time ended when Harbaugh & Co. took over the following season and he was no longer on the roster by the time 2012 rolled around. He caught on with the Bucs for a couple of seasons as a blocking tight end, but was out of football in 2014.
Re-Draft Pick: WR Antonio Brown, Central Michigan
The fleeting thought of having Dez Bryant and Antonio Brown at receiver for the past five seasons hurts my brain and it seems downright criminal that this was a possibility.
Brown was buried on the Steelers’ depth chart behind the likes of Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antwaan Randle El during his rookie season, but the signs were there from the very beginning. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown caught 84 percent of his targets and averaged nearly seven yards after the catch per reception, numbers that would have ranked first and fourth, respectively, among wide receivers had he been on the field for a qualifying number of snaps. His role increased significantly in this next two seasons and by 2013 he was firmly established as one of the league’s top pass catchers.
As fun as redrafts can be to think about, with the struggles Baalke has had drafting quality receivers, this one is painful.
Round 6 (206th overall): WR Kyle Williams, Arizona State
Williams was consistently forced into a role well above his ability level during his time in San Francisco, thanks to the dearth of talent at wide receiver, and was never really able to make much of his opportunities. It’s difficult to think of Williams without thinking of the two fumbles late in the 2011 NFC Championship game. Injuries have kept Williams off the field for much of the past three seasons, and he’s currently at the bottom of the Broncos’ depth chart.
Re-Draft Pick: DE Willie Young, North Carolina State
Young is another guy that is probably a better fit as a 4–3 defensive end, but was thought to have some potential as a 3–4 outside linebacker entering the draft. His snaps were mostly limited during his first three seasons, but has rounded into a capable pass rusher in the past two seasons, breaking out with 10 sacks last year in Chicago. As you would expect, Young is one of the few players at this point in the draft that turned out to be a quality contributor.
Round 7 (224th overall): DB Phillip Adams, South Carolina State
Adams stuck around as a special teamer for one year, and has since made his way to four other teams in as many seasons, even starting eight games at safety for the Raiders and Jets in that time.
Re-Draft Pick: LB Kavell Conner, Clemson
Conner has started 43 games across five seasons for the Colts and Chargers, spending time at weakside and middle linebacker in that time. Even more surprisingly for someone selected with the 240th overall pick, Conner actually hasn’t been terrible by Pro Football Focus’ numbers. Finding a player capable of providing quality depth and competent spot starts is a win any general manager would take in the seventh round.