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Straight Out of the Rabbit’s Hole: The 49ers have a disturbing trend in the first rounds of NFL drafts

Diego Del Barco
Jan 6, 2014 at 9:57 PM

While the NFL playoffs have the full attention of our nation, this is also the time of the year when the NFL draft starts to get a lot of (l)ink(s) . It seems like every day news break regarding underclassmen entering the draft early, which seniors will be attending All-Star games like the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game, and draftkniks and evaluators promptly provide their views on all draft prospects.

While there is no doubt that we are all enjoying the season that the 49ers are having, this success comes with the small price of a lower pick in the draft order, where San Francisco will land no higher than the 25th pick as of today. This will provide a challenge to 49ers general manager Trent Baalke because San Francisco historically does not draft very well in the middle-to-late stages of the first round.

The 49ers have drafted 75 players in the first round of the NFL draft dating back to 1950 when they joined the league. Those 75 players have been drafted as follows:

  • 22 players picked between 1st and 8th overall.
  • 24 players picked between 9th and 16th overall.
  • 14 players picked between 17th and 24th overall.
  • 15 players picked between 25th and 32nd overall.

After reviewing each of these 75 players and their performances in the NFL, whether with the 49ers or with another team (via trades, FA signings, etc), I found that 20 to 28 of the players selected by San Francisco in the 1-16 range are safe from the BUST label, while only eight to 10 of the players selected in the 17-32 range can be looked at as successful picks. That puts the 49ers' success rate of players selected between 1-16 at about 50%, while the success rate of picks 17-32 hovers around 33%.

As previously stated, San Francisco will not be picking higher than 25th in the 2014 NFL draft - unless they trade up. The team's success rate in the 17-24 and 25-32 ranges is nearly identical, with only about four or five players in each group becoming, at worst, above-average contributors to an NFL team. Over the last 14 drafts (or since 2000) the 49ers have picked in the 25-32 range six times, and besides Joe Staley in 2007 (28th) they failed miserably. Try not to puke as you read these names: Mike Rumph, Kwame Harris, Rashaun Woods, Kentwan Balmer, AJ Jenkins. They didn't do too bad in the 90's, with William Floyd, Dana Stubblefield, and Ted Washington making up for wasted picks on Jim Druckenmiller, Todd Kelly, and Dexter Carter ... R.W. McQuarters wasn't too bad. The 49ers did misfire with both of their late first round picks in the 1980's, as neither Keith DeLong (28th in 1989) nor Terrence Flagler (25th in 1987) lasted more than five seasons in the league.

If the 49ers are to consistently remain Super Bowl contenders, then Baalke and his staff will have to do their best to improve the rate at which San Francisco drafts impact players towards the end of the first round. This isn't to say that non-first round picks aren't impact players, but one does not need to look farther than this team to realize that successful first round picks form the core of a good team, as 10 of the 22 listed starters - Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, and Eric Reid - were picked in what is now day one of the NFL draft.


Some interesting facts regarding the 49ers and the first round of the NFL draft:

  • The 49ers have used the first overall pick three times, and while only one of those players can be considered a bust (Harry Babcock in 1953), none of the other two (Dave Parks in 1964 and Alex Smith in 2005) proved worthy of such high honor. Parks started out hot but faded away quickly after his first three seasons.
  • The 49ers have picked 11th overall eight times, more than at any other slot in the first round. The most notable player the 49ers picked in this slot: defensive lineman Leo Nomellini, who was the team's first ever first round pick. If you don't know him, look him up, the Hall of Famer's accolades are impressive. What? Were you thinking Patrick Willis?
  • The 49ers have never picked fourth, 12th, 14th, 21st, or 32nd overall.
  • Where have the 49ers had the most success? The three 16th overall picks (Gene Washington, Jerry Rice, Julian Peterson) have been excellent, but three of the four third overall picks (Y.A. Title, Hugh McElhenny, and John Brodie) carry more weight for me (Steve Spurrier being the only blemish).
  • Where have they had the least success? 10th overall, where other than Michael Crabtree (and maybe Jimmy Webb) the other picks (Tom Stolhandske, Dickey Maegle, Bill Sandifer, J.J. Stokes) were busts.

I would love to hear from some old school fans regarding some of the names thrown on here from back in the day.

Follow me on twitter @DiegoDelBarco
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.


  • Lucky Phil
    Amazing work Diego! Bill James would be proud. I just have one question. Why in heck didn't you write this article the first week of the season?! If Baalke read this 16 weeks ago we might have had J Gordon for a song (2nd rd pick) Tell AJ he needs to work harder, you are doing all the heavy lifting. (Just kidding AJ) Enjoy the game, guys.
    Jan 8, 2014 at 7:38 PM
    Response: Thanks Phil. I actually thought about all of this before the last draft, just never got around to putting it together. AJ is putting in work too, that'll be out in the next couple of days.
  • Jim Stubblefield
    Where do these numbers rank in terms of the rest of the league? Are some teams hitting much higher than .333 On the latter half of their first round picks? BTW Eric Reid looks like a hit as late first rounder...
    Jan 7, 2014 at 7:17 PM
  • Marshall
    Niner drafting 1950-1977 must have been pretty abysmal, given the lack of a championship and rare playoff appearances (Damn Detroit! Damn Dallas!). Since, however, I think the record speaks well of drafting, trading, free-agent signing. What do stats like these look like for other teams? All team or just some?
    Jan 7, 2014 at 4:20 PM
  • Dominic
    I think Diego needs to go back in the Rabbit Hole. Haha. Let us fans enjoy this playoff run and stop bringing the mood down over the draft. We'll worry about that when we have to. Right now, it's playoff time.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 12:08 PM
    Response: LOL
  • Jason
    This article is the equivalent of saying, "When water gets below 33 degrees, it freezes. That must be a trend." No crap dude! The draft isn't a sure thing for any team. That's just the way it is!
    Jan 7, 2014 at 10:26 AM
  • Steve
    'If the 49ers are to consistently remain Super Bowl contenders, then Baalke and his staff will have to do their best to improve the rate at which San Francisco drafts impact players towards the end of the first round.' This article definitely tries to link the history of the 49ers past drafts to the present. Does anyone think that Baalke and Harbaugh consider drafts from decades ago? A historical article can be fun. But this link is a bit of a reach. Weak article on one of my favorite websites. You can't win em all. But, we still love you guys!
    Jan 7, 2014 at 9:15 AM
  • Keith
    This is stupid, as if who we picked in 1950 somehow shines down negatively on far as I can see he's hit homeruns on every first round pick he's made/been a part of other then A.J. Jenkins. Iupati, Davis, Aldon and Eric Reid all look like pro bowl caliber players. I think we are in great hands going forward!
    Jan 7, 2014 at 8:39 AM
    Response: Who is saying that who we picked in the 1950's shines down negatively on Baalke though?
  • Roy Prasad
    This would have been a very insightful, meaningful, intelligent and relevant article if the same GM had been running the draft for the past 63 years.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 7:29 AM
    Response: Again, this is article isn't directed at criticizing Baalke.
  • Ladale
    In other words, unless their trading up (Staley) in the later 1st round. They Suck!!
    Jan 7, 2014 at 6:59 AM
    Response: Not so simple either.
  • Dominic
    We're in the divisional round of the playoffs, and THIS is what you chose to write about? Lol. Ok.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 6:01 AM
    Response: I'm writing about the Packers and Panthers games with AJ and will post on that later this week, so yes.
  • Daniners
    What a rediculous article. Here is my advice, if you are going to claim a level of ineptitude with regarding to our drafts, you need to compare it to the rest of the NFL. What you will find, is that most of the other teams draft like crap and ironically, all teams hit rate on first picks after about 20'go down considerably. Do you know why? Because a good draft will generally only have 18-20 picks with true first round grade, so once you get past 20, the difference in the eye of teams becomes much smaller. That's why AJ Jenkins instead an Alshon Jeffrey's, and that is one reason teams move into the top 20 to take player...Reid, Iupati, Staley, Willis, etc. Moreover, great teams are built through the middle rounds of draft, not first round picks. The 49ers have traditionally drafted as well or better than any team n the NFL and the evidence remains 5 SB's and three appearances in past three years. From 1981-98, the 49ers missed the playoffs twice. After 1999 they didn't miss until 2003, then missed 7 straight until Harbaugh righted the ship. Harbaugh proved that the talent was always there, we didn't miss because of an empty cupboard, we missed because of crappy coaching.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 4:03 AM
    Response: I think it's ridiculous that you misspelled ridiculous. No but seriously, even if the rest of the NFL drafted worse than the 49ers it doesn't change the fact that the team could really benefit from drafting better in the mid-late first round. I'm also not trying to downplay the importance of mid-round picks.
  • Matty P
    While this piece provides an interesting historical retrospective, it seems dangerous to draw conclusions about what this front office will do based on what previous front offices have done. That the 49ers whiffed on late first rounders Rashaun Woods, Kwame Harris, Mike Rumph, Reggie McGrew, R.W. McQuarters, etc. does not bear even the slightest causality to what Baalke and company will do with a late-first round pick in 2014 - to say nothing of what the organization did with late first rounders in the early 90s, 80s, 70s, etc. Probably most relevant are any picks that have been made since Baalke assumed a greater role in the draft process in 2008. Kentwan Balmer and A.J. Jenkins obviously do not reflect well on Baalke's ability to pick late in the first round, but that is as far as one really needs to look if one is trying to establish a pattern (Baalke would have had little no bearing on the picks of Manny Lawson in 06 and Joe Staley in 07 as a west coast scout). Frankly, 2 picks is too small of a sample size from which to derive any sweeping conclusions. Just sit back and hope that this is the time they get it right.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 12:00 AM
    Response: Thanks, this isn't an attempt to draw conclusions about Trent Baalke's ability to draft in the late first round, just an observation that this is an ongoing trend.

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