With all the recent discussion about the 49ers moving Jimmie Ward to cornerback this off-season — after moving him there in 2015 and 2016, then switching him back to his “natural position” — it got me thinking about other notable position changes the 49ers have made in recent history.
I’ve always been a fan of players switching positions — even if just as stunt or fluke. I loved backup quarterback Cody Pickett playing special teams in 2005. And backup QB Steve Young running a few patterns as the Niners fourth wide receiver due to injuries in 1990. And starting CB Deion Sanders lining up at WR and getting targeted on a deep ball in the Super Bowl.
I also love rookies moving positions during their transition to the pros — like Eric Johnson and Delanie Walker switching from college wide receivers to pro tight ends. But thats pretty common in football. Less common are real position changes — established players who have primarily played one position moving to a entirely new position. Even more rare are the instances when that change is a success.
Three significant position change success stories come to mind. Moves which maximized the player’s talent, transformed the team on the field, and led directly to at least one title.
Roger Craig — from FB to RB
I wrote recently about how cathartic and redemptive the 1988 season was for the 49ers after playoff disappointments the previous three seasons. But while the greatest disappointment came in 1987, the team had already made a change that year to address the chief problem on offense, changing the base personnel to the lineup which would win the next two Super Bowls — and come within a whisker of a chance to make it three in a row (not that I still think about the 1990 NFC Championship game on a regular basis). But enough about the sad ending to Roger Craig’s 49er career, let’s look at good parts. And I don’t mean him in his underwear.
Roger Craig was basically the 49ers starting fullback from the day he showed up as a rookie in 1983, and immediately established himself as one of the top receiving backs in the league. In 1984, he blocked for what was then the most prolific rushing season in 49er history (Wendell Tyler’s 1,262 yards) on an 18-1 world champion. Oh, and he scored three touchdowns in the Super Bowl.
In 1985, Tyler battled injuries, and without a great backup RB option, Craig became the top ball carrier (214 carries, 1,050 yards). Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon became less productive, and rookie Jerry Rice was still learning how to not drop passes (seriously), so Craig was also their top receiver (92 catches, 1016 yards) — the first back to ever record 1,000+ yards both rushing and receiving, but it led to him being beaten up heading into the wild card game at the Giants. New York held him to 41 total yards and won, 17-3.
The 49ers hedged their bets with Tyler in 1986, picking up Joe Cribbs, a three-time Pro Bowler for the Bills. Cribbs was just 28, but it turned out his best days were behind him. So were Tyler’s. The 49ers lost in the first round to the Giants again, 49-3. Without a dependable running game, the Giants teed off on Montana. The 49ers had a glaring weakness, and Bill Walsh didn’t realize at the time, but the answer was already on his roster.
Walsh would try to fill the hole at RB in the 1987 draft, using a first round pick to take ... Terrence Flagler. The man made lots of great picks, but this was not one of them. (He was coming off arguably the best draft ever, but this was one of his worst -- other than Harris Barton, he got “Bob White & the 8 Dwarfs”.) Flagler was a bust, leaving the team with a revolving door at RB. Still, they kept winning behind a career year out of Montana and a record-breaking year from Rice.
In midseason, Walsh finally solved the puzzle, moving Craig from FB to RB. That allowed him to get Craig’s back-up (with the 49ers and Nebraska), second-year FB Tom Rathman, on the field. Rathman quickly became an effective ball carrier, their go-to short yardage back, and a productive receiver — not to mention their best blocker. So although the 49ers got stunned by the Vikings in the first round of the playoffs, they had actually put into place a strong foundation which would lead to previously unseen heights.
In the offseason, Craig solidified that foundation. He’d always been in terrific shape due in part to “The Hill,” but he knew he had to prepare himself physically for his new position. Craig vowed to shed the bulk he needed to be a lead-blocking FB and become leaner. He stepped up his off-season workout routine, and put himself on a strict diet, losing 16 pounds and showing up to camp the looking like a different person — and player.
In 1988, Craig was a 1st-Team All-Pro, and the AP Offensive Player of the Year. He broke Tyler’s franchise record with 1,502 rushing yards on 4.8 yards per carry, shouldered the offensive load while Montana and Young fought for the starting QB job — each struggling at times — and carried the team to the title as much as any single player, and that includes Joe Montana.
In 1989, Craig was less effective (1,054 yards on 3.9 ypc), and Rathman took over as the top receiver out of the backfield, but again the 49ers won the Super Bowl — a blowout in which Craig and Rathman combined for three TDs, including one on a long drive where they were the only ballcarriers.
Craig left through free agency after 1990 — his final 49er memory a dynasty-crippling fumble. But he left behind a legacy as one of the most versatile and dangerous backs in the league during his prime — and a key contributor to three title-winning teams.
Merton Hanks — from CB to FS
In 1994, the 49ers finally overcame the oppression of the early 90s Dallas Cowboys in large part due to a renaissance on defense. There were many areas you could point to for the unit’s resurgence — on the line, where rookie defensive tackle Bryant Young joined Dana Stubblefield to pack a mean 1-2 punch; at linebacker, where both Ken Norton and Gary Plummer were added through free agency; and in the backfield, where Deion Sanders was signed. Since Primetime was the Defensive Player of the Year, you could argue that was the key move.
But the move that opened that spot up for Neon Deion — not that a talent like that ever needs a spot to opened up for him — was Merton Hanks move to FS, Hanks had been an all-Big Ten CB, was drafted as a CB, and played CB as a rookie in 1991 (starting eight games). Then the 49ers tried Hanks at SS in 1992, starting five games, but the slight Hanks was ill-suited for run support. In 1993, with the addition of free agent SS Tim McDonald, the 49ers moved Hanks to FS, where he would spend the next six seasons (starting 16 games five years in a row).
Hanks was a great talent, and could’ve found success with another team, or at another time, maybe even at CB. But two factors made his change to FS snap perfectly into place. First, McDonald, was beefy and tough, but not all that fast — a LB at SS — which allowed the wiry Hanks to be what he was — a CB at FS. McDonald moved up into the box, played the run, and blitzed. This freed up Hanks to play centerfield and help on double-teams. That led to a lot of his signature dancing. The second factor was Deion’s arrival at RCB, allowing the Niners to leave him on an island and roll Hanks over to LCB Eric Davis’ side frequently. Davis was the only starting DB to not make the Pro Bowl, and he’d make the next two without Deion on the other side.
After the Super Bowl victory in 1994, Hanks would make three more Pro Bowls post-Deion, and a First-Team All-Pro. Then after leaving the Niners, he returned to CB in one final season with ... the Seahawks. (Yuck.) Why do these stories always have to end sadly?
Ronnie Lott — from CB to FS
Ronnie Lott has close to a 100 percent approval rating. Anybody who saw him play recalls the passion, talent, toughness, and attitude. And who could forget the pinky story?
Say he’s the greatest safety of all time at a sports bar and you get very little argument. He’s at the top of all sorts of online lists. But many people forget he spent his first four-plus seasons playing CB — and made the Pro Bowl every year. In fact, the only time Lott missed the Pro Bowl in his first 11 seasons was 1985, the year he switched from LCB to FS midseason. The most interesting part of this move was that Lott actually traded positions with Dwight Hicks, who switched from FS to LCB after also making the previous four Pro Bowls in a row. (It was the less funny sequel to Trading Places!)
Think about that scenario for a second: A team that went 18-1 and won the Super Bowl the year before, and had all four DBs make the Pro Bowl, decided the very next year to flip-flop two players who had each made four straight Pro Bowls and had no experience at their new position. The crazy part is it totally worked — at least for Lott and the team (Hanks’ next year was his last in the NFL).
Lott’s new position would define him — and he it. The fit was perfect. His attitude and style of play set the standard for the position, the archetype teams looked for, The 49ers would drop on defense from their record-setting 1984 season but only from first to third, where they would stay three of the next four years before finishing second in 1990, Lott’s last year with the team. During that time, he was the unquestioned leader of the defense on two championship teams.
Upon leaving the 49ers in 1991, Lott switched positions again, starting at SS, making First-Team All-Pro at his third position and leading the NFL in interceptions — for the Raiders. Having to watch my favorite player growing up wear the silver and black was the saddest ending of all. Still, it’s hard to complain when the beginning and middle was so glorious.