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As promised here is the second part of my report card on the 49ers' 1st round selections in the past decade (2001-2010)
Here's the first part in case you missed it
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2006, 22nd overall --> Manny Lawson - North Carolina State: *turn on your sarcasm meters* Ah, the good old days, remember the Bush Bowl? It was 2005, nearing the last game of the season at home against the struggling Texans, and both San Francisco and Houston had 2-win records heading into the second-to-last game of the season before their "Showdown" in the last game. At the time Reggie Bush was the prize, a highlight reel machine on his way to a Heisman season and the player anointed by everyone as the sure #1 pick in the 2006 draft. Many believed, including 49ers's fans, that both teams would head in the season finale with identical 2-13 records and that the loser of that game would actually be the winner by 'earning' that #1 draft slot and taking Reggie to turn the franchise around.
The good old days *you may turn off the sarcasm meters now*, the 49ers 'messed up' the plans by winning their previous game at home against the Rams, then put the finishing touches on a 4-12 season by beating the Texans in overtime on a rainy afternoon that saw Alex Smith throw his first career touchdown (shout out to Brandon Lloyd).
But Diego, why are you torturing us with these memories? Aren't you supposed to be talking about Manny Lawson? Patience folks, it all connects. As I'm sure many of you remember Reggie Bush wasn't the #1 pick, that honor went to defensive end Mario Williams from, (give yourself a high-five if you knew this) North Carolina State. Well, the other defensive end in the Wolf Pack disruptive defensive line in 2005 was none other than Manny Lawson, who along with Williams terrorized ACC quarterbacks in 2005.
Lawson, voted by teammates and coaches as the Wolf Pack most valuable defensive linemen in his last two seasons at North Carolina State, played his first two college seasons as an outside linebacker before making the move to edge of the defensive line, so when the 49ers selected him with their second 1st-round pick of the '06 draft to play the edge as a 3-4 outside linebacker it seemed like a match made in heaven. Lawson was just over 6'5", 245 pounds and had popped the eyes out of scouts at the NFL combine by running a ridiculous 4.43 40-yard dash, by far the best at his position. Here were the 49ers, in the sophomore year of their transition to the 3-4, and this was their pass-rusher of the future, their own freakish version of DeMarcus Ware, everyone was psyched about the pick, myself included. The problem is the sacks never really came (14.5 and counting after 5 seasons) and Lawson has been just an above average player for San Francisco, albeit consistent. Manny has been playing the OLB position that asks him to do a lot of coverage on opposing tight ends and he has done a pretty good job at it. He has also been a difference maker a few times in special teams either blocking a kick/punt or being involved in such plays. Furthermore he's been a starter for most of his career, starting 56 of the 64 games he's played in, including 12 starts in 16 games during his rookie year. He does do a lot of little things that sometimes go unnoticed in a game, like puting pressure on the QB even if he doesn't get the sack, or holding the edge on a run play to keep it from going outside. The thing is he was supposed to be a steal at 22nd overall, instead he looks like a reach by at least a round.
Wish we could have had: in that draft, how about Greg Jennings? Remember picking Brandon Williams with our next pick after Lawson? (3rd round)
2010, 17th overall --> Mike Iupati - OG, Idaho: FYI, this 23-year old from American Samoa shows up at 6'5", 331 pounds, looks like all of it, and puts it all to work too. Iupati, who like his partner Anthony Davis started every game as a rookie in the 49ers offensive line last season (at LG), is a crushing run blocker who is already considered one of the best and most feared in the league and whose presence in future Pro Bowls is expected by many NFL experts. He's really lived up to his billing coming out of Idaho, taking a blue collar approach in practices as well as in games. He's already a lock to beat the man in front of him one-on-one in the running game and has forced opposing defenses to game-plan for him.
However, he's still developing as a pass protector. For all the strength he's got he can at times struggle against quicker defensive tackles and is still learning how to make use of his hands and feet in pass protection instead of abusing his raw strength, which can lead to holding calls. Fortunately for him, Davis, and every other 49ers offensive linemen the team carries one of the best offensive line coaches in the game, Mike Solari, so the odds of Iupati continuing to improve and reach his full potential are pretty darn good.
Go ahead and file him as "the jury is still out on them".
Wish we could have had: I can't lie, I like many in the fan base wanted Iupati with that 17th pick, as long as he pans out I wouldn't trade him for anyone else.
2009, 10th overall --> Michael Crabtree - WR, Texas Tech: I remember once the Titans picked Eugene Monroe at #8 I knew I would be happy because the top two players I wanted at the moment were on the board and, well, the Packers could only take one of them: nose tackle B.J. Raji and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Raji was one of the main contributors of the Packers' championship run in 2010, becoming one of the best nose tackles in the game after being bothered by an ankle injury in his rookie season. Crabtree, on the other hand, is still a mystery to me somewhat, although I give him the benefit of the doubt due to the team's shaky play at quarterback.
If there was ever a sure pick at WR Crabtree was supposed to be it, he was hands down the best receiver in the '09 class after dominating the college football scene as a freshman and sophomore in 2007 an 2008 collecting the Biletnikoff Award, the Paul Warfield Trophy (both given to the top college football WR in the nation), and 1st Team All-American honors in both seasons while playing in Texas Tech's spread, pass happy offense. Although lacking elite speed, Crabtree has excellent hands, often attacks the football in order to make the catch, has great instincts, and is an above average run blocker. His route-running however has room for improvement and he has been somewhat inconsistent when catching the ball despite his great hands. I would say focus is his main issue thus far, he has everything it takes to be an elite player in the league but he has yet to put it all together. Missing training camp both seasons (holding out 70 days for a contract in 2009, and being bothered by an injury in 2010), hasn't helped out, and one just wonders if the desire to be great is really there. If he puts it all together he's supposed to be our version of Larry Fitzgerald, yet he's been playing like a #2 WR so far. Some of you may consider the it's too early to tell about him, yet until he fulfills his potential ...
Wish we could have had: Raji would have been nice, but how about another Packer? Clay Matthews.
2007, 28th overall --> Joe Staley - OT, Central Michigan: the 49ers traded their following season's 1st round pick to move into the end of the 1st round in '07 (I know, cringe) and select Staley, and I have to say it wasn't too bad of a move. A tight end as a freshman in college, Staley keep growing and was eventually moved to tackle where he became a starter on the right side as just a sophomore. He made the move to left tackle at the beginning of his junior year and solidified himself at that position until he graduated and moved on the NFL where he quickly rose up draft boards to a mid-late 1st round grade. His quickness allows him to be a decent pass blocker who holds up well for the most part, but he isn't a mauler so run blocking isn't his strength although he can do a good enough job. Although not spectacular, he has been a steady anchor on the left side of the offensive line for the 49ers, goes unnoticed by referees, and is one of the leaders in the locker room. Perhaps he lacks that mean streak that sometimes offensive linemen need, my biggest concern with Staley going into his 5th season is I wonder if he has reached his ceiling: is he already the best he will ever be? If so we can only hope he can at least keep performing well consistently for another five years or so. I don't know if he will ever be able to make the transition to right tackle later in his career.
Wish we could have had: I can't wish we hadn't traded up because I already said I would had wanted DeSean Jackson in '08, so how about Sydney Rice?
2001, 7th overall --> Andre Carter - DE, California: Carter was highly touted coming out of Berkeley after back-to-back outstanding seasons as an upperclassman, earning All-Conference honors as well as winning the Morris Trophy Award in 2000, given to the conference's top defensive linemen as voted by opposing offensive linemen in the conference. He immediately became a starter on the edge of the defensive line for the 49ers, giving San Francisco solid production in his rookie season and breaking out a year later racking up 12.5 sacks and forcing 3 fumbles. He followed that season with numbers just a bit under what he produced in his first year, mostly a result of nagging injuries and opposing offenses doing plenty of game-planning for him. After missing about half of the '04 season with a back injury Carter was converted to outside linebacker in his last season with the 49ers in '05 as the team switched to a 3-4 defense, but Carter wasn't as effective there despite playing in every game that season. He signed with the Redskins in 2006, going back to his most natural position of defensive end and continued to give outstanding production, reestablishing himself as pass-rushing threat and posting double-digit sack seasons in '07 (10.5) and '09 (11).
Now a free agent going into his 11th season Carter is still being pursued by NFL teams perhaps as more of a role player, maybe even a mentor for younger players at his position. He has been pleasant presence on and off the field, and quite honestly snubbed out of a couple Pro Bowls. I'll say it right now: there is no one else at that point in the draft I wish the 49ers had selected.
2006, 6th overall --> Vernon Davis - TE, Maryland: I must confess: I struggled grading Vernon, arguably the best tight end in the NFL today. After all he is the highest player ever drafted at his position so the expectations are through the roof, and his first three seasons didn't justify the selection. However when taking a closer look a it I understood that he showed flashes in his first season, showed encouraging improvement in his second season and just when you thought he was going to break out, Mike Martz, touted for being one of the best coaches in the passing game (and for good reason), thought it would be best to leave Vernon as a blocker often in hopes of giving quarterbacks more protection. When Vernon was finally utilized as a game-breaking weapon in the passing game he started to live up to the hype.
(No, I'm not going to go into detail about the benching in 2008 by Mike Singletary, I think it's a well-known fact that this was one of the turning points in his career, but that story has gotten more press than Chad Ochocinco -excuse me, Johnson - gets mentioned in today's sports talk)
One of my biggest pet peeves when analyzing a player is consistency: sure X player had a good game, or had a good season, but can he back it up? Vernon certainly has. After breaking out in 2009 by tying the NFL record of touchdown catches by a tight end with 13 (See: Gates, Antonio), to go along with 78 catches for 965 yards, and a place as a starter in the Pro Bowl, Vernon backed it up, earning nearly as many yards in 2010 (914) on fewer catches (56), and 7 touchdowns. Establishing himself as a threat in the passing game was maybe the final point on Vernon's checklist, who is an excellent run blocker and a stud pass protector who can hang with some of the best pass rushers in the game. Furthermore, and ever since the benching in 2008, he's been one of the undisputed leaders in the locker room and a team captain.
Number six overall, highest ever for a player at the tight end position, brings a lot of expectations. As of right now I can say that he's finally meeting those expectations and I believe he can get even better (1000+ yard seasons, more Pro Bowls).
Wish we could have had: As long as he continues to be arguably one of the best tight ends in the league it's hard for me to say I wish we would drafted anyone else, but if I had to pick someone else: Haloti Ngata.
2007, 11th overall --> Patrick Willis - MLB, Mississippi: the biggest issue with grading this guy is finding enough words, and the right words, to describe him, because Willis is simply one of the best players overall in the NFL. He's so good at his craft he's more than arguably the best at his position; he's the kind of player you would have to come up with a real solid argument as to why any other middle linebacker in the game is better than him.
He followed his 2005 All-SEC and All-American season by racking up hardware in his senior year: received the Butkus and Jack Lambert awards recognizing him as the top collegiate linebacker, received the Conerly Trophy recognizing him as the top collegiate player in the state of Mississippi, was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and once again received All-SEC and All-American honors.
His NFL resume is even more staggering. He has had over 100 solo tackles in each of his four seasons, his highest being in 2007 during his Defensive Rookie of the Year when he wrapped up 135 tackles. Last season, the year with his lowest number of solo tackles, he made up for it by sacking opposing quarterbacks six times, a career high. The overall numbers through four seasons: 459 tackles, 28 passes defended, 15 sacks, eight forced fumbles, four interceptions, and two touchdowns. That was good enough to earn him gigs as the starting middle linebacker for the NFC in the Pro Bowl in each season, three First Team All-Pro selections accompanied by three NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year selections in 2007, 2009, and 2010, and a Second Team All-Pro selection in 2008, which almost sounds like a disappointing season. That's how good he is: anything other than greatness seems like a disappointment.
To top it all off he's an undisputed leader on the team, a humble individual who takes a blue-collar approach each and every day, and a player who desires greatness and is always looking to make himself and his teammates better. Coincidently enough he posted a new blog on his website today: a must read for any football fan
Wish we could have had: Patrick Willis. A dream come true.
Thank you very much for reading and as always feel free to leave any comments/questions and I'll get back to you guys as soon as I can.