It’s quite common to hear discussion about the misses that the 49ers have had in the draft since Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch took over. From Solomon Thomas to Dante Pettis and everywhere in between, you’ll hear about how this front office has been bad at drafting and developing talent.
While there have been some big whiffs, the latter is simply not true. As evidenced by the extreme value the 49ers have been able to find in the undrafted free agent market over the years.
The 49ers currently have four players on the 53 man roster that were brought in as undrafted free agents by this regime, and all four have made significant contributions to this team during their stints in red and gold (JaMycal Hasty, Emmanuel Moseley, Kevin Givens, Azeez Al-Shaair).
Although no longer with the team, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne was another example of how well this regime has done in regards to player development. Bourne went from a player on the roster bubble to one of the 49ers' most important pieces on offense over the following couple of seasons, which was echoed by Shanahan this past offseason.
“But if everyone had been healthy, it would have been hard for Bourne to make the team,” Shanahan continued. “But we kept him because a couple of guys were hurt. ... Damn, I’m glad I didn’t cut Bourne Week 1 because he ended up being our most consistent guy for the following two years.”
After cornerback Emmanuel Moseley signed a two-year extension, John Lynch mentioned that the 49ers front office does take the long view when evaluating these post-draft signings and that they have a methodical way of allocating resources to the development of these players.
“Emmanuel is a great example of how we look to build our football team,” said general manager John Lynch via a statement. “After originally joining us as an undrafted player, he put in the time and effort, and we have watched him develop into a key contributor on both defense and special teams. We are excited to keep him as a 49er for the next few seasons.”
Azeez Al-Shaair is the latest impact player who joined the 49ers as an undrafted free agent who is making significant contributions to their team. His trajectory perfectly embodies the philosophy the 49ers front office has taken in regards to how they want to develop players in-house. Special teams contributor who put in the time and effort to hone his skills and master his craft, who ends up stepping up in a big way when his number was called to be a starting member of the defense.
This season Al-Shaair has been one of the better players on the 49ers' defense, displaying a relentless motor going sideline to sideline at an impressive pace while racking up tackles in the second level. Al-Shaair’s defense against the run has been particularly impressive. His play overall clearly caught the attention of his head coach, who was non-committal in naming Dre Greenlaw the starter upon his return from Injured Reserve due to how well Al-Shaair has played.
“We’ll see. Greenlaw’s played at an extremely high level, too,” said Shanahan. “I think Greenlaw has done a hell of a job in his career here for us. He’s just getting back into practice for the first time in a while, so I do think it would be hard to unseat Azeez right away. Just because of what Azeez has done, he’s played at a high level, and I think that’ll take Greenlaw a while to have the chance to pass him up again.”
It remains to be seen what will happen with Al-Shaair once Greenlaw is fully up to game speed with a few practices under his belt (I, for one, believe he should retain the starting role until further notice), but one thing does seem certain.
That this front office will continue to find gems in the undrafted market moving forward, which will be imperative considering the amount of draft capital they will be without over the next couple of seasons.