The 2017 NFL draft is 13 days away, and it marks a huge period for the San Francisco 49ers. The team has ten picks for new general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. The team was active in free agency, but the draft is where the long-term picture can start to come into focus.
This past offseason, the 49ers fired general manager Trent Baalke, and their third coach in as many years. The overhaul happened in large part due to failures in developing young talent. Baalke and the front office hit on some draft picks, but there were some ugly misses. The team was not overly aggressive in free agency during that stretch, leaving the team thin at most positions.
With that in mind, it is pretty good timing as SB Nation took a look this morning at the smartest draft pick for each NFL team over the past five years. It was not necessarily the best player on the team, but rather, “just that his team made the savvy choice drafting him when and where it did.” Who would it be for the 49ers? The pickings are rather slim given how the past five drafts have gone, but here is a look at the options.
2012 San Francisco 49ers Draft
Round 1 - Pick 30 - A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois
Round 2 - Pick 61 - LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
Round 4 - Pick 117 - Joe Looney, OG, Wake Forest
Round 5 - Pick 165 - Darius Fleming, LB, Notre Dame
Round 6 - Pick 180 - Trenton Robinson, FS, Michigan State
Round 6 - Pick 199 - Jason Slowey, OT, Western Oregon
Round 7 - Pick 237 - Cam Johnson, LB, Virginia
What a disaster this draft was. Normally you need to wait three to five years before you can have a solid take on a draft class. Not this one. The 49ers traded A.J. Jenkins after only one season. LaMichael James had some bright moments in 2012 and 2013, but asked for and was granted his release early in the 2014 season. Joe Looney and Cam Johnson were the only two players to even get a decent bit of playing time. Looney appeared in 19 games, starting four, and was released in 2015. Johnson appeared in a couple games as a rookie, but was traded in 2013 for a 2015 seventh round pick. The 49ers turned that into a 2016 sixth round pick, and then used that as part of their deal to move up for Joshua Garnett.
Smartest pick: Joe Looney, just because of how bad everything else was.
2013 San Francisco 49ers Draft
Round 1 - Pick 18 - Eric Reid, FS, LSU
Round 2 - Pick 40 - Tank Carradine, DE, Florida State
Round 2 - Pick 55 - Vance McDonald, TE, Rice
Round 3 - Pick 88 - Corey Lemonier, LB, Auburn
Round 4 - Pick 128 - Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech
Round 4 - Pick 131 - Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
Round 5 - Pick 157 - Quinton Dial, DT, Alabama
Round 6 - Pick 180 - Nick Moody, LB, Florida State
Round 7 - Pick 237 - B.J. Daniels, QB, South Florida
Round 7 - Pick 246 - Carter Bykowski, OT, Iowa State
Round 7 - Pick 252 - Marcus Cooper, CB, Rutgers
The 49ers moved up in the first round to grab Eric Reid, having him set to replace Dashon Goldson at free safety. Concussions were an early concern, but he looked to be past that before tearing his biceps muscle this year. This was the year the injury draft picks were most notable. The team drafted Tank Carradine coming off a torn ACL, Marcus Lattimore coming off multiple torn ligaments, and Quinton Dial coming off a bad turf toe injury. Carradine and Dial remain on the roster, but Carradine has not been an impact player.
Quinton Dial and Vance McDonald are the only two players from this class who have earned contract extensions. Both extensions came under Trent Baalke, so their respective statuses moving forward under the new management are not known.
Corey Lemonier showed some signs of life as a rookie, but never seemed to learn a second pass rush move and has since been released. Quinton Patton and Nick Moody both made their share of contributions on special teams, but neither showed much else. Patton got his chances at wide receiver, but injuries sidelined him early in his career, and bad offenses did not exactly put him in a position to do much the last couple years.
Smartest pick: Eric Reid
2014 San Francisco 49ers Draft
Round 1 - Pick 30 - Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois
Round 2 - Pick 57 - Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
Round 3 - Pick 70 - Marcus Martin, C, USC
Round 3 - Pick 77 - Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
Round 3 - Pick 100 - Brandon Thomas, OG, Clemson
Round 4 - Pick 106 - Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina
Round 4 - Pick 129 - Dontae Johnson, CB, North Carolina State
Round 5 - Pick 150 - Aaron Lynch, DE, South Florida
Round 5 - Pick 170 - Keith Reaser, DB, Florida Atlantic
Round 6 - Pick 180 - Kenneth Acker, DB, Southern Methodist
Round 7 - Pick 243 - Kaleb Ramsey, DT, Boston College
Round 7 - Pick 245 - Trey Millard, FB, Oklahoma
Injuries have been issues for the team’s top two picks. Jimmie Ward entered the league with a foot injury he aggravated. That cost him the second half of his rookie season. He suffered a quadricep injury and then a shoulder injury this season, costing him five more game. Carlos Hyde was healthy in year one, but since taking over as the team’s starting running back, he missed nine games in 2015, and three games in 2016. He is entering the final year of his contract, and his future is shaky under new management.
Chris Borland likely would have gone down as the best player in this draft class after a stellar rookie season, but he retired that following offseason due to concerns about head injuries. That was part of a particularly bad 2015 offseason that saw multiple retirements.
This year is a big one for guys like Aaron Lynch, Bruce Ellington, Keith Reaser, and Dontae Johnson. All four are in the final year of their rookie deals. Lynch is an early front-runner for the LEO role on the defensive line. Reaser and Johnson have a fighting chance in the cornerback competition. Ellington has flashed skills but injuries have derailed his career thus far.
Smartest pick: Carlos Hyde
2015 San Francisco 49ers Draft
Round 1 - Pick 17 - Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon
Round 2 - Pick 46 - Jaquiski Tartt, S, Samford
Round 3 - Pick 79 - Eli Harold, LB, Virginia
Round 4 - Pick 117 - Blake Bell, TE, Oklahoma
Round 4 - Pick 126 - Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
Round 4 - Pick 132 - DeAndre Smelter, WR, Georgia Tech
Round 5 - Pick 165 - Bradley Pinion, P, Clemson
Round 6 - Pick 190 - Ian Silberman, OT, Boston College
Round 7 - Pick 244 - Trenton Brown, OT, Florida
Round 7 - Pick 254 - Busta Anderson, TE, South Carolina
This is an intriguing group. Arik Armstead has flashed the most raw skills, putting up impressive pass rush productivity numbers in Pro Football Focus analysis. His shoulder injury this year derailed what was looking like it might be a breakout season.
Jaquiski Tartt has worked his way into the starting lineup multiple times due to injury, but with Eric Reid likely moving over to strong safety, it is hard to tell what kind of role Tartt will have. Reid is signed through 2017, while Tartt is signed through 2018. This year’s training camp will be a fascinating one.
Armstead has the best raw skills, but I would contend seventh round pick Trenton Brown has emerged as the best pick of this class so far. I don’t know how he will shake out in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but a seventh round pick turning into a capable starter is kind of big. He’s got a lot of work still to do, but for combination of value and performance, has anybody done more from the 49ers 2015 class?
Smartest pick: Trenton Brown
2016 San Francisco 49ers Draft
Round 1 - Pick 7 - DeForest Buckner, DT, Oregon
Round 1 - Pick 28 - Joshua Garnett, OG, Stanford
Round 3 - Pick 68 - Will Redmond, CB, Mississippi State
Round 4 - Pick 133 - Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU
Round 5 - Pick 142 - Ronald Blair, DE, Appalachian State
Round 5 - Pick 145 - John Theus, OT, Georgia
Round 5 - Pick 174 - Fahn Cooper, OT, Mississippi
Round 6 - Pick 207 - Jeff Driskel, QB, Louisiana Tech
Round 6 - Pick 211 - Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida
Round 6 - Pick 213 - Aaron Burbridge, WR, Michigan State
Round 7 - Pick 249 - Prince Charles Iworah, CB, Western Kentucky
It’s only been one year, but some names have jumped out. DeForest Buckner is looking like the real deal. He has to improve his leverage, but he was a strong lineman while going through a huge workload. Meanwhile, Joshua Garnett worked his way into the starting lineup in Week 6, and struggled for sizable chunks of the season. It was importance experience, but he needs to take that experience and do something with it.
Rashard Robinson has been the most intriguing of this group. He has the length the team likely wants in a press corner. He needs to put on more weight to deal with a full season’s grind, but he is one of the most intriguing of the team’s last five draft classes once he gets into this new defensive system.
Ronald Blair is another day three pick with some measure of intrigue. Beyond that, there was not a lot there. Aaron Burbridge played all 16 games, but it was mostly forgettable. John Theus got some work late in the season. Fahn Cooper, Jeff Driskel, and Kelvin Taylor are all gone, while Prince Charles Iworah spent most of the season on the practice squad.
Best pick: DeForest Buckner
SB Nation’s “Smartest Pick” for 49ers
SB Nation put together a look at the smartest picks, and for the 49ers, they went the safe route. They picked Eric Reid, and had this to say:
The 49ers decided to use their 2013 first-round pick on LSU’s Eric Reid, a hard-hitting safety who thrives as a run-stopper. He has 252 tackles, eight interceptions, and 30 pass deflections in his career and is one of the best players on the 49ers’ defense.
Niners Nation Best Pick for 49ers
Reid has been a solid pick, albeit not quite as spectacular as I think most would hope. I think Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner will emerge as better long-term defensive players. Rashard Robinson dealt with injuries, but showed enough in his rookie year to keep me interested. But, I’m going to go with Trenton Brown. He very well could be gone before we know it as part of a roster turnover, but for the time being, finding a starter in the seventh round counts as smart (or lucky).
Your turn now to vote. I’ve included a handful of names, plus an “Other” category. With hindsight on our side, who was the smartest pick between 2012 and 2016? Apologies to those looking at this on Apple News or AMP, as the poll will be stripped out.
Who was the San Francisco 49ers smartest pick over the last five years?
This poll is closed
2013 - Eric Reid
2013 - Quinton Dial
2014 - Jimmie Ward
2014 - Carlos Hyde
2014 - Aaron Lynch
2015 - Arik Armstead
2015 - Trenton Brown
2016 - DeForest Buckner
2016 - Rashard Robinson
Other (specify in comments)