The San Francisco 49ers have done a tremendous job building their current roster through the NFL draft. Many of the current players on the team were drafted within the past decade. Of course, not every pick the team makes turns out to be a good one, but with so many picks in the past decade, the 49ers have drafted very well. Even before the Jim Harbaugh era when the 49ers were terrible, other head coaches managed to pick some great players that has allowed Harbaugh to be successful over the past three seasons.
Close, but no cigar: Andy Lee (2004 6th Round) and Dashon Goldson (2007 4th Round)
Andy Lee has been one of the best punters in the league ever since the 49ers drafted him in 2004. Lee is a three-time pro bowler who probably would have made the list if it weren't for him being a punter.
Dashon Goldson struggled at the safety position for his first few seasons and didn't become the full-time starter until 2009. However, once he became the starter, he proved to be a quality defender and was named to consecutive Pro Bowls in 2011 and 2012. The 49ers could not afford to pay him a big contract, which he was owed after two very solid seasons, so Goldson moved on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Colin Kaepernick has done an outstanding job since becoming the starting quarterback for the 49ers in the middle of the 2012 season. He made his debut as a starter on a Monday night game against the Chicago Bears. His performance propelled him to become the starting quarterback for the rest of the season and he eventually led the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Kaepernick will have to prove that he can carry a team with his arm rather than his legs and the rest of the running game before he can be moved up on this list. The 49ers are counting on him to be able to make big plays in the passing game to complement their outstanding running game and defense. If Kaepernick can make just enough big plays with his arm, the 49ers will be a very dangerous team so long as he remains the starter.
Michael Crabtree has battled multiple injuries over his young career. These injuries have caused his receiving numbers to not look great on paper, but his impact on the field is enormous when healthy. He has proven that he can be a number one receiver on a Super Bowl contending team, which is exactly what he did in the 2012-2013 season. Crabtree was Colin Kaepernick's favorite receiver throughout the 49ers playoff run.
Crabtree has missed most of this season due to an achilles injury suffered during the offseason, but he could become a huge part of another 49ers playoff run if he can stay healthy. The 49ers offense has been anxiously awaiting his return from injury because of the struggles they have had at the wide receiver position all season. When healthy, Michael Crabtree can be a top ten receiver in the NFL.
Aldon Smith has had a very rocky first couple of seasons in the NFL. He has been involved in multiple off the field incidents including two DUI's. On the other hand, Smith has been one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL during his first three seasons. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2011 behind Von Miller and had 31.5 sacks during his first two seasons. 2013 hasn't been a great year for Smith, who checked himself in to rehab to help with substance abuse. Smith has since returned from rehab and rejoined the 49ers.
Over the course of 10 games, Smith has recorded 8.5 sacks in the 2013 season, which is still a very impressive number. I expect that he will play a major role for the 49ers in the upcoming playoffs and could be a huge difference maker for the 49ers defense. If Aldon can manage to stay out of trouble off the field, he could go down as one of the greatest pass-rushers of all-time.
Alex Smith was a heavily scrutinized quarterback by football fans for a long time. The scrutiny was probably well-deserved considering that Smith was the number one overall pick in 2005. Smith was given extremely high expectations that he never really met until Jim Harbaugh became head coach in 2011. As soon as Harbaugh became the head coach, Smith finally started to show why he was drafted number one overall. He led the 49ers to the NFC championship game in the 2011-2012 season, which was a huge accomplishment considering how bad the 49ers had been the prior season.
As soon as 49ers fans finally started to warm up to Smith, he suffered a concussion in the middle of the 2012-2013 season and never regained his starting quarterback position due to the emergence of Colin Kaepernick. It was a bit unfair to Smith to lose his job due to injury, but Harbaugh felt that Kaepernick gave the 49ers the best chance to win a Super Bowl. After the 2012-2013 season, Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs who he has led to a playoff berth this season proving that his last couple years with 49ers was no fluke. It would have been interesting to see if Smith could lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl, but I think many 49er fans are happy with the change that Harbaugh decided to make.
NaVorro Bowman was a huge steal for the 49ers in the third round of the 2010 draft. Bowman has quickly proven that he can be an elite level starting linebacker. He is a tackling machine who has proven that he can do everything on defense.
Bowman started out as a special teams player in his first season, but became the full-time starter for the 2011 season. He was voted to the Pro Bowl this season as well as last season, and helped lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl last season when he deflected a late game Matt Ryan pass to Roddy White that could have sent the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl rather than the 49ers.
This past Monday night, Bowman made one of the great plays of the year when he intercepted a Matt Ryan pass intended for Harry Douglas for an 89-yard interception return touchdown. It was one of the biggest plays of the year for the 49ers and clinched a playoff berth for the team.
Mike Iupati has been one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL ever since he was drafted by the 49ers in 2010. He has proven to be worth a first round pick because of his outstanding ability to run block as well as being a phenomenal pass blocker. Iupati has also proven to be an extremely durable player during his first four seasons where he has only missed four games. The 49ers did very well in drafting Iupati 17th overall and it is very hard to find offensive linemen as durable as Iupati has been.
The NFL has recognized Iupati as a great offensive linemen by voting him to the Pro Bowl this season and last season. As long as he can stay healthy, it would not be surprising to see him occupy that Pro Bowl position for the 49ers for many years to come.
Another first round pick that the 49ers hit a home run on in the NFL draft is offensive tackle Joe Staley. Staley has also been a relatively durable offensive linemen over the course of his career, playing in all 16 games in five of his seven seasons with the 49ers. More importantly, Staley has been able to stay healthy ever since the 49ers emergence as an elite team a couple years ago.
Staley has been recognized by the NFL by being elected to the Pro Bowl for the third year in a row just a few days ago. The 49ers offense has greatly benefitted from the presence of Staley, whether in the running game or passing game. He does a lot of the dirty work for the 49ers that is never recognized in the box score, which is why he one of the most popular 49ers players.
Vernon Davis had a tough start to his NFL career. His first two seasons were plagued with injuries and he was sent to the locker room in the middle of a game in his third season by then head coach Mike Singletary. Singletary may have lit a fire under Davis who ever since that occurrence has become one of the best tight ends in the NFL, and lived up to being the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft. He has now become one of the leaders on a Super Bowl contending team, which is a huge turnaround from where he was early in his career.
Vernon has proven that he can be a dominant player in the NFL, catching 53 touchdowns
thus far in his career. He is one of the most unique tight ends the NFL has ever seen, with his ability to outrun any defender with his blazing speed as well as his ability to be physical. There has not been a tight end in the league faster than Davis since he came into the league in 2006. Not only is he a great receiver, but he is a great blocker as well, which many people don't realize about him. His blocking ability is one of the things that makes Davis so valuable and so important to the 49ers offense. Davis was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2009 and was also just voted to the Pro Bowl for this current season.
Patrick Willis has taken over the reigns of being the NFL's best linebacker. In my mind, there is no question that Willis is the most dominant and consistent linebacker in the league. He is a leader of one of the best defenses in the NFL and is an outstanding all-around defensive player. Willis, along with NaVorro Bowman, make up the best starting linebacker core in the NFL.
Ever since Willis was drafted by the 49ers, he has been recognized as one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Willis has been voted to the Pro Bowl every year of his career and also won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007. These are extraordinary accomplishments that only Hall of Famers are able to achieve, which is where Willis will end up some day. Every season, Willis can be penciled in as one of the leading tacklers in the NFL, as well as being on the Pro Bowl roster.
The heart and soul of the 49ers over the past nine seasons has been Frank Gore. Picking him in the third round was one of the best draft picks in franchise history because of his consistency, elusiveness, power, and ability to make the tiniest running lane look like an alley. No matter how good or bad the 49ers have been over the past nine seasons, Frank Gore has put up Pro Bowl type numbers every season. The consistency he provides the 49ers offense is unmatched by any other running back in the NFL.
There is no 49ers running back who has rushed for more yards in their career than Frank Gore has. It makes his accomplishments even more impressive when considering how bad the 49ers have been for the majority of the time he has been with the team. Gore has been selected to five Pro Bowls, including this year. He has scored 70 career touchdowns with the 49ers and is close to becoming the franchise leader in rushing touchdowns if he can score nine next season.
Not only can Gore run the ball extremely effective, but he is one of the best pass blocking running backs in the entire NFL, which is one of the most underrated abilities of a running back. He has also proven that he can be an elite pass catcher out of the back field. It would not be surprising to anybody if Frank Gore was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame when all is said and done.