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The 49ers have the late 1st-round blues

There’s a Draft Dead Zone where 49ers draft picks go to die. It may be slowly claiming its latest victim

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The trainwreck that has been Reuben Foster’s off-season has been an unwelcome slap in the face for 49ers fans after the end of the season and Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract had us all fueled up on unbridled optimism. The allegations against Foster are very serious, and have an impact well beyond the football field which must be considered and addressed, but from a purely football perspective, Foster is also an asset — one who’s value has now been diminished. It also dovetails with an ugly trend.

The fact the 49ers traded up to the end of the first round to draft Foster has always stuck in my mind. That’s because the 49ers have drafted in that spot several times over the last couple of decades -- 13 first round picks at #24 or later since 1997 to be exact. The list of players taken with those picks isn’t pretty.

With one gleaming exception, it’s all disappointments, misjudgments, and question marks. Being a masochist, I took a closer look.

The Good

Joe Staley (#28 in 2007)

More like The Great. The one pick where the 49ers hit a home run, and got exactly what they thought they were getting. As with Foster, the 49ers traded up to get Staley, and he has been what any team would want at that spot in the draft. Stalwart left tackle. Team leader. Six Pro Bowls in 11 years. This is what first round value looks like. Take a good look, it’s the last time you will see it on this list.

The Bad

Ahmed Plummer (#24 in 2000)

Plummer is the toughest call on the list -- he almost gave the 49ers enough to put him in The Good. He started at least 14 games each of his first four seasons, snagging seven interceptions in one. He was great at times, looking the part of a blossoming shutdown corner. But he was injured and inconsistent other times -- starting only nine games in his fifth and sixth seasons -- and ultimately you have to expect more from a first round pick. Still, it’s easy to be conflicted about a guy who’s career was shortened by injury and was good enough to be called a “ex-49ers standout” upon his retirement at the age of 30.

Kwame Harris (#26 in 2003)

Harris was supposed to be the 49ers future at left tackle, the guy replied upon to protect the QB’s backside. One problem: He couldn’t pass block. He was a decent run blocker, but had a tendency to hold. If that wasn’t bad enough, there were also questions about his love of the game.

I remember Jeremy Green posted a blind item in a column on ESPN.com while Harris was playing about a first round pick from Harris’ draft class who mentioned in a team meeting at the combine that some days on the practice field he wished he was home playing piano. Since Harris famously played piano, and didn’t have much of a mean streak, it was clearly him. In his defense, watching him pass block on Sundays, I wished he was home playing piano, too.

R.W. McQuarters (#28 in 1998)

Though he wasn’t worth his draft position, the 49ers actually gave up on McQuarters too early -- after just two seasons. He went on to play nine more seasons, at CB/KR/PR, becoming a full-time starter at corner with multiple teams, but never displayed anything approaching first draft value. His name, on the other hand, is Hall of Fame worthy.

Mike Rumph (#27 in 2002)

To avoid plagiarism, I’ll defer the commentary on Woods to some guy named Fucillo, who wrote this about Rumph’s bustitude a few years back. As pointed out in the piece, Rumph wasn’t terrible, just not very good. As a first rounder thought to be a future star, that made him an immense disappointment.

Also, look at that list of top 10 49ers draft busts since 1990 he compiled there -- over half appear here as well. Two others (Todd Kelly and Dexter Carter) were also drafted between #24 and #32, but just a few years before the time period I’m looking at (1990 and 1993). That means the vast majority of draft busts the 49ers have had the past 30 years were taken in the span of nine picks.

The Ugly

Jim Druckenmiller (#26 in 1997)

Steve Young was getting older and the 49ers needed a heir to the throne. Most people, myself included, wanted them to draft Jake Plummer. He had just led Arizona State to within a couple of minutes of a national title in a very dramatic Rose Bowl, and had a lot of people saying he looked like a young Joe Montana. That included Bill Walsh, who once said ”I see Jake having a Montana-like career, including the Super Bowls.” Instead, they selected Druckenmiller, who was most famous for a video of him breaking a Virginia Tech weightlifting record which is somehow nowhere to be found on the internet as far as I can tell.

Plummer had a solid NFL career and led a couple of different teams to playoff wins, but was no heir to the Montana/Young throne. Meanwhile, Druckenmiller played quarterback in the NFL like a weightlifter. He even had trouble making it to his first NFL game. He was traded to the Dolphins after two years, and never took another NFL snap. In 2008, he was named the #11 all-time draft bust since the NFL-AFL merger

AJ Jenkins (#30 in 2012)

Do I even need to remind you? The 49ers had a championship defense, championship running game, and solid short passing game. What they lacked was a true game-breaker, a deep threat to stretch the field. A.J. Jenkins was supposed to be that guy. A.J. Jenkins was not that guy. Three NFL starts, none for the Niners, a career total of 233 receiving yards.

Rashaun Woods (#31 in 2004)

Woods was A.J. Jenkins before A.J. Jenkins was A.J. Jenkins. What made it a little less painful: He was drafted by a rebuilding 49ers squad as opposed to a contending one he was supposed to help get over the hump. What makes it a little more painful: He was supposed to be the replacement for the recently departed Terrell Owens.

Kentwan Balmer (#29 in 2008)

A glaring mistep in the midst of a great first round run by the 49ers. In the three drafts before his, the Niners drafted Staley, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, and Alex Smith. In the three years after, they drafted Michael Crabtree, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, and Aldon Smith. All became starters on a 49ers team that made the Super Bowl. All were taken above #24. Meanwhile, Balmer never started a game for the Niners, and only 11 in his career.

Reggie McGrew (#24 in 1999)

McGrew won a national championship and made All-SEC at Florida, but never did anything in the pros. Well, that’s not exactly true — he showed up out of shape his first pro camp, later missed camps, was injury prone, and was thought by coaches to have a bad work ethic. In the end, he never started a game in three NFL seasons (two with the Niners) and compiled exactly one sack. But I bet it was a really nice sack.

The Incomplete

Jimmie Ward (#30 in 2014)

Unless something changes in 2018, Ward will slide comfortably into The Bad. While he’s shown the ability to play both safety and cornerback, the best ability is availability -- and the second best is durability. Ward has shown precious little of either. No matter his talent level, he has only started 24 of the 49ers 64 games (38%).

It looks as though Ward will get at least one more chance to show his worth in 2018, but just how much remains to be seen. The safety depth chart has gotten crowded -- in a good way for the 49ers. Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert are potential starters, so even if the 49ers don’t re-sign Eric Reid, there may not be significant time at safety for Ward. With Akhello Witherspoon at one corner, cap room to sign a free agent (Malcolm Butler?), and many people predicting the Niners will select Denzel Ward out of Ohio State with their first pick this year, there may not be a lot playing time at corner either. Jimmie might not even be at the top of the Ward depth chart.

Joshua Garnett (#28 in 2016)

It’s still too early to tell with Garnett, who has only been in the league for two seasons, and active for one, but I have personally never had high hopes. From the questions about the 49ers reaching to pick him, to the change in systems, to the “body composition” work they asked him to do this year rather than coming back from injury, I think there are plenty of warning signs. But there have been some positive reports so it’ll be interesting to see how aggressive the 49ers are going after guards in free agency and the draft.

Reuben Foster (#31 in 2017)

We know he has the talent. After watching his rookie season, we can see it translates well to the field. Between the lines, it’s pretty clear he’s a star in the making -- injury issues notwithstanding. But the question is — again, purely from a football standpoint — in the end is any of that going to matter?

The 49ers don’t have a pick in the Dead Zone this year... Yet.