One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone scoffs at a rookie for played well because everyone expected him to. When discussing San Francisco 49ers’ second overall pick, the topic is always, “anyone could have made that pick.” As if we don’t see draft busts at the top, or, on the other side of the coin, teams reach for a player that has no business going in the top-five. Looking at you, Oakland.
The shield went through every NFL team’s draft from 2019 and assigned a letter grade to each. First place? The Niners:
Third draft’s a charm? John Lynch’s first two ventures into the college marketplace produced mixed-bag results: While the Niners committed highway robbery in snagging George Kittle in the fifth round (!) and also unearthed budding star Fred Warner in Round 3, they spent a pair of 2017 first-rounders on Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster (oof). But this latest draft class sings. It’s a group that played an absolutely crucial role in San Francisco’s astounding turnaround from 4-12 bottom feeder to 13-3 NFC champion. Consequently, it’s a group that played an absolutely crucial role in Lynch’s Pro Football Writer’s Association Executive of the Year honor.
Let’s start at the top, with the game-wrecking force of nature acquired at No. 2 overall. Bosa ran away with Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. And while the ageless Richard Sherman churned out another stellar campaign and Arik Armstead broke out in a major way, there’s a solid argument to be made that Bosa was the best player on this dominant defense. Including the playoffs, Pro Football Focus credited the defensive end with a whopping 102 pressures (second in the entire NFL, behind only Za’Darius Smith’s 104). And he finished the season with a bang, terrorizing Kansas City’s offense with a dozen pressures on Super Bowl Sunday. The Niners’ second-round pick, Samuel, was similarly imposing to K.C.’s defense in the Lombardi Trophy game, gaining 92 yards on eight touches. That was the cherry on top of a delicious rookie season that saw Samuel emerge as one of the most exciting young playmakers in the league. In his notebook column last week, my colleague Bucky Brooks astutely pointed out that Deebo’s basically a modern-day wing back. Yep, part receiver, part running back, all open-field terror. Kyle Shanahan’s gonna cook up fun things with No. 19 for years to come.
Lynch didn’t just nail his top two picks, either. Greenlaw is another fifth-round steal, and not just because he made the play to secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The linebacker filled in for the injured Kwon Alexander so well that the Niners’ defense didn’t really skip a beat, with the rookie finishing second on the team in tackles (92). Lastly, Skule proved highly valuable as a swing tackle with the injuries to Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, while Wishnowsky handled the team’s punting duties all season.
Bosa flashed more than any other defender, so I understand the argument of him being the best player on defense. We’re a year away from that, and Bosa being a consensus All-Pro if he’s healthy. It was a phenomenal rookie campaign for one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Bosa was so good that we overlooked what Deebo Samuel did on the field. Year 1 is generally when wide receivers struggle. That wasn’t the case for Samuel in 2019, who would have been a 1,000-yard receiver had it not been for the 49ers offense style of play/blowing out opponents.
It’s important to note, as the author did, that it wasn’t just two picks Lynch hit on. A year from now, hopefully, we’re talking about how Jalen Hurd fell to the third round. Greenlaw has a chance to be an above-average starter. Getting the type of early returns the 49ers did in 2019 was promising. Now that the team tasted success, the pressure to continue to draft at a high-level isn’t going to stop anytime soon.