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The 10 most impactful rookies in 49ers history

Marc Adams
May 10, 2023 at 1:04 PM--

We are just a couple of days from the 2023 rookie minicamp for the San Francisco 49ers. Some players will make the team and play for the 49ers for a few years or more. Many will not even make the team. But it's exciting to see these young athletes get the chance to compete for a spot on the roster, and that competition begins on Friday.

I thought this might be the perfect time to look back and see which players have been the most impactful rookies in team history. There have been many good ones, and it was hard to narrow it down to the top 10. To make it easier on myself, I am only including rookies that I remember, starting with the early 1980s—when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and Robbie Gould was still in his twenties.

There are a few rules:

  1. The player had to have made an impact as a rookie. So we're not including someone like Joe Montana, who became a Hall of Famer but wasn't that impactful as a rookie.
  2. The player must have made a positive impact. So we won't be including LaMichael James or any other rookie who fumbled in the Super Bowl.
  3. This isn't based solely on statistics. It has more to do with the overall impact the player made.

Alright, let's jump in. Here are the 10 most impactful rookies in 49ers history.

10. CB, Don Griffin, 1986 (6th round)

Key statistics: Three interceptions, one sack, one punt return for a touchdown, three forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered, and 72 tackles.

Read those statistics again. Griffin had a great rookie season. He did it all, including a punt return for a touchdown. And he was a sixth-round selection.

Griffin, who wasn't the only 49ers rookie to start at corner in 1986 (his fellow rookie corner is mentioned below), helped solidify a secondary that had lost some of its shine from the first two Super Bowl teams. In his second season, the 49ers' defense was the best in the league, allowing the fewest total yards and fewest passing yards of any NFL team.

But his rookie season was memorable, because not only was he a great corner, but he was the 49ers' primary punt returner. He averaged 9.9 yards per return, with a 76-yard touchdown. Griffin deserves to be on this list.

9. CB, Tim McKyer, 1986 (3rd round)

Key statistics: Six interceptions, which led all rookies in 1986, with one returned for a touchdown. He also led the team with 23 passes defended.

McKyer was a great coverage corner right out of the gate, starting all 16 games as a rookie. He liked to talk on and off the field, but he backed it with his play. Six interceptions for a rookie is really impressive, and it's hard to ignore. When you join a veteran defense and play as well as McKyer played as a rookie, you'll land on coveted lists like this one.

McKyer is a little higher on this list than Griffin because McKyer was a more dynamic corner. Griffin was probably more consistent, but McKyer was more impactful.

8. CB, Eric Wright, 1981 (2nd round)

Key statistics: Three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one postseason interception, and one postseason forced fumble for the Super Bowl Champions.

Wright was part of a trio of defensive backs who were drafted in 1981 to give Defensive Coordinator, Chuck Studley, some weapons to build a championship defense. He did that. And it didn't hurt that he had a future Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator and head coach as his defensive backs coach in George Seifert.

Seifert molded those three rookies, and they, along with pro bowl safety, Dwight Hicks, changed what was a bad 49ers defense into a dominant one. In 1984, all four made the Pro Bowl and won their second Super Bowl together. Among them, they won a combined 12 Super Bowls. Wright played on all four Super Bowl teams in the 1980s.

7. RB, Roger Craig, 1983 (2nd round)

Key statistics: 725 yards rushing, eight touchdowns, 48 receptions for 427 yards, and four receiving touchdowns. He also added one touchdown and 92 yards from scrimmage in two postseason games.

As a rookie, Craig led the team in yards from scrimmage, as well as rushing and receiving touchdowns.

Craig's greatest accomplishments came in the years to come, but his impact as a rookie was immediate, and it changed Bill Walsh's offense for good. The way Walsh was able to use Craig, as a rusher and receiver, not only changed the 49ers' offense, it change NFL offenses. What Marshall Faulk did, and what Christian McCaffrey and others do today, Craig was doing as a rookie.

And that was as a fullback.

6. DT, Bryant Young, 1994 (1st round)

Key statistics: NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, six sacks, 49 tackles, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery, six sacks on a Super Bowl-winning team. Young also added one postseason sack.

In 1993, the 49ers' defense was not very good, and they couldn't get past Jimmy Johnson's talented Dallas Cowboys. So in 1994, the team drafted and signed reinforcements that helped San Francisco win a sixth Super Bowl title. Among those signings was first-round draftee, Bryant Young.

Young, who would end up a Hall of Famer and fan favorite, made an immediate impact on a defense that desperately needed to improve. The 49ers had invested heavily in a defense that could knock off the Cowboys. Young was a dominant player in the middle of the defensive front, providing impact as a pass rusher and run stopper.

5. DE, Aldon Smith, 2011 (1st round)

Key statistics: Runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year, 14 sacks (49ers rookie record), 27 QB hits, 13 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. Smith also had two sacks and six QB hits in the postseason, as a rookie.

Smith was a key part of Vic Fangio's punishing defense that helped turn the franchise around in 2011 during Jim Harbaugh's first season in San Francisco. Although he didn't start a single game as a rookie, Smith played most of each game, and was constantly in the backfield, harassing opposing quarterbacks.

Sadly, Smith never lived up to the promise of his first two seasons, due to personal reasons.

4. LB, Patrick Willis, 2007 (1st round)

Key statistics: Defensive Rookie of the Year, first-team All-Pro, 174 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.

Willis had 174 tackles as a rookie, to lead the league. Even as a rookie, Willis was a tackling machine, a playmaker who was all over the field. His biggest test would come in early December when the 49ers played the Minnesota Vikings, and star running back, Adrian Peterson. Willis finished with eight tackles and a fumble recovery. Peterson finished with 14 carries for three yards.

Willis is one of the 49ers' best draft picks ever and was one of the team's most impactful rookies, even though he played on some terrible teams early in his career.

3. Edge, Nick Bosa, 2019 (1st round)

Key statistics: Defensive Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowl selection, nine sacks, 25 QB hits, one interception, one forced fumble, and 47 tackles to go along with one forced fumble, five QB hits, and four sacks in the postseason.

From the moment he was taken as the number two overall pick in 2019, Nick Bosa was expected to be great. He wasted no time in proving he was. As a rookie, Bosa transformed the 49ers' defense into the best unit in football. That defense led the 49ers to within seven minutes of winning Super Bowl LIV. Had they held on to win it, Bosa would have had a real chance at being named Super Bowl MVP.

Bosa has had better seasons since his rookie campaign, including being named the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year, but his rookie season was one of the most impactful in 49ers' history.

2. QB, Brock Purdy, 2022 (7th round)

Key statistics: Third in Offensive Rookie of the Year, 1,374 yards passing, 13 touchdown passes, 107.3 QB Rating, and 5-0 as a starter. Purdy also added three touchdown passes and 569 yards passing in the postseason, with a 109.8 QB Rating, leading the 49ers to two playoff wins.

Griffin, number 10 on our list, may have made an impressive impact as only a sixth-round pick, but there was one rookie who made an even bigger impact while being drafted dead last in the seventh round. Purdy was called on in week 13 to replace an injured Jimmy Garoppolo, who had replaced an injured Trey Lance. All he did was far exceed anyone's expectations, except maybe his own.

Purdy may not have some of the impressive accolades and statistics as some of the other 49ers' rookies on this list, but the fact that he was the quarterback of a Super Bowl-caliber team, and went undefeated in the regular season cannot be overlooked. The impact Purdy made was massive, and if not for a freak injury, he might have led his team to a championship and won the top spot on the "10 Most Impactful Rookies in 49ers' History" list.

But that honor goes to a Hall of Fame, four-time Super Bowl champion.

1. CB, Ronnie Lott, 1981 (1st round)

Key statistics: All-Pro Team, seven interceptions, returning three of them for touchdowns, to go along with one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and 89 tackles. Lott also added two postseason interceptions (one for a touchdown) to help the 49ers win their first Super Bowl.

If those numbers weren't enough, Lott was second in voting for Defensive Rookie of the Year and seventh in NFL MVP. He probably would have won Defensive Rookie of the Year if he hadn't been a rookie the same season as Lawrence Taylor, the legendary linebacker who won the award.

But the numbers and awards don't even tell the story. Lott brought a lot of talent to the team, but he brought much more in attitude, leadership, work ethic, and a championship mindset. Ronnie Lott is easily the most impactful rookie in 49ers' history.

Honorable mention:

  • DB, Carlton Williamson, 1981- four interceptions, two fumble recoveries for the Super Bowl Champions. You could easily put Williamson on the top 10 list. He was that good as a rookie.
  • WR, Jerry Rice, 1985- 49 receptions, 927 receiving yards (still a 49ers' rookie record), three touchdown catches, and one rushing touchdown, even though he only started four games. Rice had a game late in the season in which he caught 10 passes for 241 yards, giving us a glimpse of the player he would become.
  • WR, Deebo Samuel- Samuel had more receptions (57) than Rice, but fewer receiving yards (802). He did, however, have more rushing yards (159) and rushing touchdowns (3) than RIce. Samuel was also more prolific in the postseason as a rookie (229 yards from scrimmage, in three games) than RIce was (45 total yards and a fumble, in one game).
  • DT, Dana Stubblefield, 1993- 64 tackles, one forced fumble, 10.5 regular-season sacks, and two postseason sacks, Defensive Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, Stubblefield's personal life hasn't been as stellar. He is currently in prison, serving a sentence for a rape conviction.

You can certainly make the case that each of the honorable mention players deserves to be on the list. And you can probably argue that a few who are on the list don't deserve to be there. But in the end, I went with who I believed should be there.

Who makes your list of the 10 most impact rookies in 49ers history?
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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