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Looking back on the 49ers draft graders

It takes 3 years to tell if a draft worked. So let’s do that to the critics.

NFL Draft Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Everyone agrees that you can’t tell how well a draft went until at least three or four years have passed. But everyone grades a draft right away anyway, even though they just told you it was a stupid idea.

So now that we have some perspective, let’s grade the San Francisco 49ers draft graders from 2015. How accurate or foolish were those snap judgments? That might give us a sense or how much to believe (or disregard) all the grades for this year’s draft.

Just to refresh your memory, here is the complete 2015 draft class. (Keep in mind that the team had just lost both starting CBs, two of four starting linebackers, and the DL’s Smith brothers-from-other-mothers, Aldon and Justin.)

1 (17). Arik Armstead, DL, Oregon
2 (14). Jaquiski Tartt, S, Samford
3 (15). Eli Harold, OLB, Virginia
4 (18). Blake Bell, TE, Oklahoma
4 (27). Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
4 (33). DeAndre Smelter, WR, Georgia Tech
5 (29). Bradley Pinion, P, Clemson
6 (14). Ian Silberman, OL, Boston College
7 (27). Trenton Brown, OL, Florida
7 (37). Rory Anderson, TE, South Carolina

In hindsight, it seems like there is general agreement about this class today. Armstead is maybe a mild disappointment (with lots of untapped potential), Tartt was a success, Harold has been meh, and Trent Brown was a late round score. The rest were unimpressive. (Pinion is an excellent punter, but a 5th round pick was a high price when most punters aren’t drafted at all.)

Even though he didn’t work out in Kyle Shanahan’s outside zone running scheme and struggled to stay in shape, 7th round pick Brown performed well and was just traded for a draft pick swap worth approximately the 8th pick in round 4 (85.5 points on the standard draft value chart, equal to the 104th pick overall.)

So what did pundits think about this draft class at the time?

Football Outsiders had a roundup of grades that put the Niners as the second worst draft class in the entire league. Their grades ranged from B- (SI’s Doug Farrar) to D (the Sporting News’ Vinnie Iyer).

Then again, those same pundits ranked the Baltimore Ravens second best for a draft headlined by Breshad Perriman — who ESPN now “ranks among the biggest first round busts in franchise history.” He was followed by TE Maxx Williams, DE Carl Davis, LB Za’Darius Smith ... you get the idea.

Bryan Fischer of had a take that held up pretty well, grading the Niners A- for day one (Armstead), a B+ for day two (Tartt and Harold, maybe a bit high), and C for the rest. He conceded that “Punters are people, too, but using a fifth-round pick on one was questionable.”

B/R’s Peter Panacy had a good, if less positive, take:

The overemphasis on the tight end position, the selection of a punter in Round 5 and the lack of an inside linebacker prospect also raise serious questions. Had the 49ers taken an inside linebacker in Round 4 instead of [Blake] Bell—linebacker Ramik Wilson would have been nice—the final draft grade would have been that much better.

Armstead has turned out to be pretty much what people expected — an athletic but raw lineman who would take time to live up to potential, if he did at all. (Give Trent Baalke credit for trading back from 15 to 17 and still getting his choice, plus an extra 4th and a 5th. San Diego picked RB Melvin Gordon in SF’s place.)

Farrar had a very accurate analysis of Armstead:

“Upside is astronomical, in theory. ... Has to find a way to transition from merely disrupting offenses to dominating them. His stats (16 QB hurries last season but only 2.5 sacks) show the disconnect in that regard. Almost unfathomable given his height and arm length that he did not manage a single pass deflection last season....”

That profile has borne out. Armstead has been solid on Sundays but not a playmaker, with a combined six sacks and only one pass deflection in three NFL seasons.

Jaquiski Tartt was a more controversial pick. Farrar called him “a Senior Bowl sensation” but he was one of many analysts puzzled by why the 49ers would draft him so high after taking safeties Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward as their two previous first round picks. Bleacher Report’s NFL draft expert, Matt Miller, saw the appeal, though.

“He’s a big-hitter. ... He is aggressive, violent and versatile. He can play free safety or strong safety ... you can put him at inside linebacker in nickel situations. You lose Patrick Willis who was such a good nickel linebacker, and I think Jaquiski Tartt can do that. He can step down in the box and fill out that 3-4 defense or the 4-3 look that they give in nickel situations and actually be a linebacker who can cover tight ends or running backs from that spot.”

Eli Harold’s pick got a lot of praise, which hasn’t really borne out. Farrar said that, “Third-round pass rusher Eli Harold from Virginia may have the best chance to get serious reps right away with his combination of speed and strength.” Dan Kadar of SB Nation praised Harold’s fit, though of course that was before the defensive scheme changed, and CBS Sports’ Rob Rang loved “the burst upfield of edge rusher Eli Harold.”

Bryan Fischer said that “Harold had first-round talent, but the 49ers were able to get him in the third.” In retrospect, that may have been a warning sign that the team should have heeded.

None of the draft analysts noticed Trent Brown, but Kadar was high on Rory Anderson. (Who?)

Anderson was a good seventh-round pick. He should push to be the third tight end on the 49ers roster if he’s willing to play special teams.

No one predicted the tendency of TE Blake Bell and RB Mike Davis to drop footballs, and Davis got a lot of love. Kadar thought Davis “could be a solid pro. He runs with good vision but battled injuries last season.” Matt Miller: “Love the Mike Davis pick.” Bryan Fischer thought, “Davis can help fill the hole Frank Gore left behind. Smelter has obvious upside given his measurable.”

Only Rang was appropriately cautionary about the later round picks.

“...tight end Blake Bell -- while talented -- is only one year removed from playing quarterback himself, and doesn’t possess breakaway ability. Similarly, wideout DeAndre Smelter offers upside at receiver but is coming off a torn ACL and needs a lot of polish. Running back Mike Davis is a quality back with grit, but isn’t as gifted as projected starter Carlos Hyde.”

The other graders shared Trent Baalke’s fascination with Smelter’s size and potential, though. Farrar called him, “a big receiver out of Georgia Tech who should get a good look once he recovers from last December’s knee injury.” Bryan Fischer said that, “Smelter has obvious upside given his measurables.”

None of those late picks, besides Trent Brown, worked out. In general, the initial draft estimates were about right on the overall quality of the 2015 draft class (not very good) but wildly off base on individual players evaluations.

That’s a good thing to keep in mind as you read everyone’s sage takes on how good the team’s 2018 draft picks were.