Grading the 49ers 1st round picks from the last decade - Part I

Diego Del Barco
Apr 24, 2011 at 11:27 AM

With the 2011 NFL Draft merely days away, we as fans look at that event as an opportunity for our team to improve, and while at it we never fail to criticize any and all the picks: did we reach for said player? Did we get good value? Did we draft the best player available? Was that a position of need? With all of that in mind I decided to take a look at our most recent first round picks to see how they have turned out: have they improved our team? Have they been busts? Do they fall somewhere in the middle? Or is the jury still out on them?

So here's a look at San Francisco's first round picks in the last decade and the grade I give each player. Notice that the grade is based on how the player turned out, not on how good the pick was at the time.

The 49ers had 13 first round picks from 2001 to 2010, picking twice in 2006, 2007, and 2010. I'll start with the lowest-rated pick and finish with the highest grade.

2004, 31st overall --> Rashaun Woods - WR, Oklahoma Sate: Easily the biggest 49ers bust this past decade, Woods was a pick hated by many in the fan base from the get-go and he never came even close to dispelling those feelings. Woods, a highly touted wideout from Oklahoma State who still holds the school's career records for receptions (216), receiving yards (4,414), and touchdowns (42), failed to beat out below average veterans in the WR corps at a time when a first round pick at this position should had been primed to take over a starting role. Not only was he mentally weak, failing to translate his undeniable skills onto the field, but he was also injury prone, and his stint with the team was done after two seasons, one of which he spent on injured reserve. Now I'm not one to say Mike Nolan made a lot of great decisions during his time here, but getting rid of Woods was probably a good call. Woods was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 2006 for a player I would rather not name, and he didn't fare any better down there. Neither did he succeed in the CFL in 2007.

Grade: F
Wish we could have had: Vince Wilfork, taken with the 21st pick. I wish we wouldn't have traded out of the 16th slot.

2008, 29th overall --> Kentwan Balmer - DT, North Carolina: Balmer was the first round pick in the draft most remembered by 49ers fans for seeing the team pass up not once, but twice (hello there Chilo Rachal), on local star WR DeSean Jackson. The rest is history, and so is Balmer's time as a 49er. Coming into the 2008 NFL Draft Balmer was seen as a boom or bust player, with many fearing his lack of performance up to his senior season when he really broke into the scene of possible Day 1 picks (back then Day 1 consisted of the first two rounds). Many wondered if he was a one-year wonder, I guess we can answer that now. Like Woods, Balmer has all the physical tools to succeed as a 3-4 DE, the position the 49ers intended to play him at, and yours truly believes if he had put it together in his head he could have really become a legit 3-4 NT. But that was the problem, Balmer could never put it together mentally, therefore he failed to crack the starting lineup over a guy like Isaac Sopoaga, who although arguably less talented does everything right on and off the field and continues to hold up well at LDE. Furthermore he seemed aggravated to see other San Francisco first round picks crack the starting lineup the same season they were drafted when he had failed to do so in his first two seasons. The disgruntled player was traded to division opponent Seattle during preseason last year where he went on to play both DT and DE in their 4-3, received more playing time, and even started both playoff games for the Seahawks last season. However in three seasons in which he's only missed five games, Balmer has yet to record a sack. Boom or bust? More like a bust. One year wonder? I guess we'll have to wait until 2012, the last year of his current contract, to see if he can at least be that good.

Grade: D-
Wish we could have had: DeSean Jackson, the 7th WR taken in the draft. (What were GM's drinking that day?)

2003, 26th overall --> Kwame Harris - OT, Stanford: AKA Holding-Number-77-Offense, Kwame is already retired. That's about all I would need to say about him, but let me add some more. Harris was actually a highly touted Offensive Tackle prospect at the time, so if you're not familiar with the situation he was definitely not a reach in the first round, as a matter of fact he was probably the best player available AND at a position of need. At some point during the pre-draft process he was projected in some mock drafts as high as 3rd overall, although most of the time he fell in the 10th to 20th slots. Harris came into the league as someone with raw talent and skills, needing to be polished in some areas yet he was expected to be an anchor of the offensive line for years to come. However his career will forever be remembered for the ludicrous amount of penalties he was called for, most notably false starts and holding calls. Bless his soul I'm sure he didn't mean to, but the number of times a penalty of his killed the momentum of a 49ers drive is insane to just think about. Heck, he's killing the momentum of this piece by making me just reminisce of all the times I would watch the 49ers break a long run for a touchdown only to see the cameras show the yellow flag on the ground, we all knew who it was going to be called on. He knew, and even if he wasn't the culprit I'm sure he was expecting to. I will say he was an above average run-blocker, at times just mauling the man in front of him and he could look beastly on plays that called on him to pull and block ahead. Yet he was a constant liability on pass protection and, as strong a run blocker could be, he earned many penalties for holding on those type of plays as well. Maybe he would have fared better as a guard but he was never moved to that position, and eventually he lost his starting spot to rookie Joe Staley in 2007. He signed with the Raiders the following season but his three-year, $16 million contract was ended after just one season where he struggled as the year went on. Now he's out of football, a first round pick retired at the age of 29. We can only hope he's putting that Stanford education to good use. Well, a selected few of us can only hope so, others don't even wish him that much good.

Grade: D+
Wish we could have had: Nnamdi Asomugha, taken five spots later by the Raiders.

2002, 27th overall --> Mike Rumph - CB, Miami: A four-year starter at the University of Miami, Rumph was considered one of the best prospects at the position in his class who, at worst, would be part of a team's secondary for many, many years. He was his own version of Darrelle Revis during his senior year, with QB's barely throwing his way. Making this even more impressing, the cornerback playing on the opposite side of him was none other than Philip Buchanon, who was drafted 10 spots ahead of Rumph by the Oakland Raiders. Naturally he was considered a prized pick at the time, an immediate impact player who could bolster San Francisco' secondary to help the 49ers compete with the Rams' air attack, who at the time owned a six-game winning streak over the Red and Gold. Instead Rumph consistently underachieved by everyone's standards including himself - during his second season he even admitted his performance in his rookie year was so poor he had to close his eyes at times while watching the tape. In 2005 Mike Nolan's staff identified his poor play at corner and made the call to switch him over to Free Safety, but just like the previous season Rumph found himself on injured reserve after just two games, and his time as 49er came to an end the following season when he was traded to the Redskins during preseason. He didn't fare much better in the East Coast, missing a few games in 2006 and eventually being waved at the beginning of December.

If there was something I could honestly say about Rumph is that the injuries he suffered kept him from fulfilling his full potential, even if that was just as a safety. Through it all Rumph always struck me as a high character individual who put full effort into the game, it's just a shame the results weren't the best. Maybe had he stayed healthy he would have been at least half the player he was at The U, instead he joins Kwame in the list of 49ers players drafted in the first round in this past decade who are already retired. He currently volunteers as an Assistant Head Coach for the Miramar Panthers 90lb team in the South Florida Youth Football League and also works as a high school assistant coach.

Grade: C-
Wish we could have had: I really wish Ed Reed (24th overall) or even Lito Sheppard (26th overall) had fallen to our pick.

2005, 1st overall --> Alex Smith - QB, Utah: undoubtedly the most scrutinized and discussed section of both parts of this piece will be this section right here on Mr. Smith, the guy everyone loves to hate. As most of you know Smith was highly touted coming out of three seasons at Utah, where he put up a 21-1 record as a starter. His junior season (2004) was filled with highlights in Urban Meyer's spread offense, scoring 42 total touchdowns (10 rushing) while throwing just four interceptions. By all accounts he was a top quarterback prospect in his class, so when the 49ers selected him with the #1 overall pick it was hard to get upset, even if as a Cal fan I wanted Aaron Rodgers.

What's happened over the following six seasons since he was made the top overall pick is a story that needs to be condensed, packaged, and published as How To Mistreat Quarterbacks For Dummies, and before you start throwing around the infamous word "Alexcuses", understand that Mr. Smith was set up to fail from the get-go, even if it wasn't intentionally. Coming from a spread-gimmicky offense, Smith was the kind of quarterback who needed time to sit and learn the pro game; instead he was called upon in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to Arizona in Mexico where he had an ok performance, and that apparently was enough to get him his first career start in only his fifth game as a pro versus Indianapolis' feared pass rush, while being protected by a faulty offensive line and aided by below average skill position players. His stat line for this game: 9/23, 74 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT, 2 fumbles, 1 lost. The sarcastic good news here is that he has never been statistically worse than that: seriously that game still represents his career worst for interceptions/turnovers in a game as well as yardage (in games that he's played entirely).

Smith was also the kind of player who would get better with time, as Urban Meyer famously noted: once he "gets it, he gets it", yet all Smith ever got was a new offensive coordinator every season, and with each one of them a new offensive system for the season ahead: Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner, Jim Hostler, Mike Martz, Jimmy Raye II, and most recently Mike Johnson. Hey Alex, why don't you come back next season and get to work with Greg Roman? And if that wasn't enough, somewhere in the middle of it all came the moment that reminded us how missing an assignment for just half a second can have such gigantic consequences. Was it Larry Allen's fault? Was it Eric Heitmann's? We may never know for sure, what we do know is that Rocky Bernard sandwiched Alex onto the ground with all of his 300-plus pounds, and Alex shoulder was never the same for a couple of years. Yours truly believes that moment, plus the sum of all the other types of mismanagement in his career, really was the beginning of the end of Smith, at least in San Francisco. He went from being the guy with all tons of upside after a solid second year to missing nearly two full seasons, and by the time he was back it almost felt like he was starting over.

Regardless, he was made the #1 overall pick and a lot more was expected of him, even if he wasn't put in the best of situations. Sometimes he has tried too hard, often times it has felt as if he's never been truly comfortable being under the spotlight, other times many felt he wasn't enough of a leader. He continues to grow as a player, is easily one of the most hard-working and dedicated players in the league, and I still have some faith that he can turn it around and have an above average career. However I doubt that will ever happen in San Francisco, and maybe that's all for the best.

Grade: C-
Wish we could have had: DeMarcus Ware, sure he might had been a reach at #1 overall, but he's arguably the most disruptive pass rusher in all of football.

2010, 11th overall --> Anthony Davis - OT, Rutgers: go ahead and file this one under "the jury is still out on them", and honestly I expect this man-child to grade out as a high 'B' after this upcoming 2011 season. After all that is what he really is, a child, a 21-year old who started all 16 games for the 49ers as a rookie last season and did a decent, although inconsistent, job. For every moment he struggled he seemed to come back with some nasty dominant moments, moments that justified the 49ers trading up from their 13th slot to go and get him. One of the biggest concerns regarding Davis going into the NFL Draft last season was his dedication and love for the game, many scouts noting that Davis seemed to struggle when looking out of shape and questioning whether he put in the effort week in and week out. However the 49ers coaching staff has said nothing but good things about the kid after his first season and we can only take that as a good sign. Davis has the potential to be one of the best offensive tackles in the game, let's see if he can achieve that feat by improving on his up-and-down rookie season.

Grade C+
Wish we could have had: Earl Thomas, but let's give Davis some time to see how he pans out.

Other Notes:

  • The 49ers didn't do too well when picking at the end of the 1st round, there may be an exception or two, but even when I look beyond the last decade more often than not they really seem to have misfired when picking within the last 10 picks of the first round. I'm just saying, for those of you who may want to trade back from the 7th slot this year to gather up more picks, be careful what you wish for.

  • Not that there's many of you out there, but folks dreaming of Mark Ingram in a 49ers uniform may not want to get their hopes up: San Francisco hasn't drafted a RB in the 1st round since drafting Dexter Carter out of Florida State with the 25th overall pick in 1990, oh and did I mention the 49ers don't do too well when picking within the last 10 slots of the 1st round? However if Ingram is still there in 2nd round (doubtful), who knows?

[*]Come back later this week to see the 49ers 1st round picks of this past decade who earned A and B grades in my report card, and find out who, if anyone, joins Patrick Willis with an A grade.

Feel free to leave any comments/questions and I will gladly reply for you, but keep it PG-13, especially all of you who love Mr. Smith (love to hate him, that is)

Follow me on twitter, which I have promised myself I will start using on a more regular basis now that I'm writing here.
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.


  • Vince
    Rumph was a cool cat though...i used to work at valley fair mall back in college and met rumph having lunch at the gator bar/grill and he sat there and sparked up a conversation with me...i wished he played better and fulfilled his potential...Extremely nice and down to earth...wished his career was better in the pros... Unlike Kevan Barlow who strutted around the mall acting like a wannabe celeb and always parking his car in the red zone like it was prohibited from getting towed...fool lived across the street at Santana Row, he didn't have to drive to get to the mall...
    Apr 25, 2011 at 5:04 PM
    Response: I agree on Rumph as a person, never really got a good read on Barlow
  • Nick S.
    By the time Rumph was finished with the 49ers, he was definitely an F. He is the reason we got into the mess at corner in the mid-2000's and made us splurge on Nate Clements. We then got extremely, extremely lucky with Walt Harris playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2006. Rumph was bad. Really, really bad.
    Apr 24, 2011 at 10:51 PM
    Response: Preach on brother, I did think he showed some progress in his sophomore season but then the injuries piled up on him. I don't know if we ever got to see the final product he could deliver, but it wasn't for a lack of effort IMO.
  • Nick S.
    Some good thoughts here Diego. Mike Rumph was so bad...
    Apr 24, 2011 at 12:24 PM
    Response: Thank you Nick, both C- grades perhaps the ones I struggled with the most in this piece

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