Last week the 49ers showed their linebacker love for Patrick Willis by making him the highest paid linebacker in the NFL with a five-year contract extension worth up to $50 million. No one will doubt that signing Willis now was the wise choice even with two years left on his old contract. Willis has an NFL high 467 tackles since he joined the league in 2007 and has made the Pro Bowl every year.
With the Willis signing it got me thinking about how he was a draft pick that changed the 49ers team. The 49ers have had many players that changed the direction of the team and in no order here are my ten draft picks that changed the 49ers forever.
Joe Montana- Drafted in 1979/Round 3/Pick 82: The 49ers were basically non-contenders before Bill Walsh drafted Montana and changed the 49ers into a respectable team and lead them to four Super Bowl championships. Joe Cool is regarded as one of the best quarterbacks to play the game.
Jerry Rice- Drafted in 1985/Round 1/Pick 16: Montana was able to win his first Super Bowl without Rice however it would have been difficulty for the 49ers to win four more with Rice not on the team. Rice not only changed the 49ers but also the NFL and the wide receiver position. Known for his great work ethic he is the best wide receiver to ever play in the NFL. He will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in August.
Andy Lee- Drafted in 2004/Round 6/Pick 186: I know what you are thinking, he is a punter! Without Lee however the 49ers would have had an even worse record in every season since he was drafted. Lee made up for a futile offense that consistently had three-and-outs and the 49ers depended on Lee in the battle of field position. As a two-time NFL Pro Bowl selection in 2007 and 2009 Lee has broken numerous punting records ever year he has played.
Patrick Willis- Drafted in 2007/Round 1/Pick 11: The Freak. Mike Singletary almost talked former general manager Scot McCloughan out of drafting Willis because he did not see him transitioning into a great linebacker in the NFL. Good thing McCloughan did not listen to the coach as Willis was the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007, is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and in his first NFL game he recorded 11 tackles, including 9 solo, and a forced fumble.
Ronnie Lott- Drafted in 1981/Round 1/Pick 8: Lott is best known as the hardest hitting safety to put on a uniform. He changed the way the 49ers played defense because he was physical and struck fear in wide receivers. Without him it would have been hard for the 49ers to win eight division titles and four Super Bowls in the 1980’s.
Roger Craig- Drafted in 1983/Round 2/ Pick 49: Craig allowed the 49ers to have a balanced offensive attack that made defenses account for the running game. Craig helped the 49ers to three Super Bowl wins and became the first player to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl in 1985. Craig was also the first player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards running and receiving in the same season, 1985.
Bryant Young- Drafted in 1994/Round 1/Pick 7: In Young’s long tenure with the 49ers, 14 seasons, he had 89.5 career sacks and was the last player on the 49ers roster who was on the 1994 Super Bowl team until he retired in 2007. Young was a force on the defensive line and helped developed young players on defense. Young was a model citizen for 49er players on how they should act and carry themselves while with the team.
Jesse Sapolu- Drafted in 1983/Round 11/Pick 289: Sapolu was a steal in the 11th round; they had 11 rounds back then! As an offensive lineman he spent his entire 14 year career with the 49ers. He was a two-time Pro Bowl selection and is one of six 49ers who won four Super Bowls with the team. Much like Joe Staley today, Sapolu was the anchor on the offensive line.
Dwight Clark- Drafted in 1979/Round 10/Pick 1: Clark had a great career for the 49ers in which he had 506 catches for 6750 yards and 48 touchdowns. He led the NFL in receptions (60) during the strike shortened 1982 season, and made the Pro Bowl twice in 1981 and 1982 in his nine NFL seasons. Clark helped the 49ers win two Super Bowls. He could have only had one reception, “The Catch”, and he would still have been on this list. “The Catch” was in the 1982 NFC Championship game against the Cowboys that advanced the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Vernon Davis- Drafted 2006/Round 1/Pick 6: Having Davis on the list is a stretch because I am basing his future success on last season which has been his only productive year as a tight end. With his athletic ability how can he not become one of the best tight ends to play for the 49ers? If the 49ers are going to become playoff contenders they succeed or fail depending on how well Davis plays. Davis went to the Pro Bowl last season and tied an NFL record for most touchdowns by a tight end (13) in a season last year.
Honorable mentions: Frank Gore, Harris Barton, Joe Staley, Terrell Owens, Eric Heitmann
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