SF 49ers: Grading all 4 of John Lynch’s NFL Draft classes

San Fransisco 49ers general manager John Lynch Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
San Fransisco 49ers general manager John Lynch Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /
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SF 49ers
San Francisco 49ers first-round draft picks Reuben Foster and Solomon Thomas Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports /

SF 49ers 2017 Draft Class

The 49ers headed into their first draft under John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan with a sizeable horde of draft picks and an almost unenviable position at No. 2 overall. With talent, though no “can’t-miss” quarterback prospect (more on this later), at many positions, this was a chance for the Niners to start the rebuild in a strong fashion.

This class also has the least ambiguity to it, given that four years have passed. Ninety-nine of the players in this draft have shown largely who they are, and very little will change that.

Round 1, Pick 3: DE/DT Solomon Thomas

Notable players drafted afterwards: Jamal Adams, Deshaun Watson, Marshon Lattimore, Patrick Mahomes, Jonathan Allen

It’s important to understand both the narratives and the situation leading up to the 2017 draft, because in a way, it helps give context to the selection of Solomon Thomas. The draft had been billed as lacking a “can’t-miss” QB prospect — an Andrew Luck or a Peyton Manning-esque prospect who would command the draft.

Following a year where two teams traded up for a QB, it was a unique draft.

There was a top-tier prospect, EDGE Myles Garrett, who was first on virtually every draft board, and there was everyone else. But despite Garrett’s talent, pass-rushers don’t command the draft the way a quarterback would. The Cleveland Browns chose Garrett, leaving a wide-open board.

Shanahan reportedly ruled out selecting a quarterback, opting to rather build a strong ecosystem a free-agent (quarterback Kirk Cousins) could have entered in. The Niners traded a spot down with the Bears so Chicago could ensure it could draft its quarterback of the future, Mitchell Trubisky. At No. 3 overall, the Niners selected Thomas, an athletic but undersized defensive lineman who had exploded his final year at Stanford, hoping for a foundational piece to coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense.

The goal for Thomas was to become the defensive end opposite the “LEO” in the Seattle Seahawks-like 4-3 system Saleh ran. This end would play on the outside on rushing downs and be moved inside for passing downs.

Well, at least it’s good they had a goal. Thomas is a wonderful person. His work supporting and destigmatizing mental health following the suicide of his sister has been inspiring. But he never found a spot with San Francisco. Part of it would be the fact that the Niners never managed to move him inside for passing downs because of a dearth of edge rushers.

At the end of the day, Thomas never produced like a top-three pick should.

Additionally, he was selected early in a draft that was ridiculously talented and has produced several superstars from the first round. It’s not fair to compare Thomas to the prospect of selecting a player like tight end George Kittle, who would have never been considered for a first-round selection, but other first-rounders are fair game.

With that in mind, it’s not pretty. The Niners passed on Jamal Adams, the All-Pro safety, Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore, All-Pro Tredavious White, and talented DT Jonathan Allen (a direct comparison to Thomas), among others. And of course, MVP Patrick Mahomes and Pro Bowler Deshaun Watson, two players who could have fundamentally altered the SF 49ers’ progression.

The Niners had a plan, and they stuck to it. But the amount of talent they passed over, QBs not included, and the disappointing production of Thomas makes this pick an  F.

Grade: F

Round 1, Pick 31: LB Reuben Foster

Notable players drafted afterwards: Dalvin Cook, Ryan Ramczyk, Budda Baker, Marcus Williams

When Reuben Foster was drafted, many thought he would be the steal of the draft. A terrific linebacker who played with speed and an edge for the franchise that had been blessed with a decade of Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman, it was a match made in heaven.

And though injuries were a concern, Foster’s production his rookie year matched the hype. Though he did not record a sack, fumble forced, or interception, he was flying all over the field, causing mayhem and playing like a future Pro Bowler and long-time stalwart.

Then the offseason hit, and with it, a stark reminder as to why this Alabama linebacker chock full of production and potential nearly fell out of the first round. Foster was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, and though the charges were eventually dropped, it was a questionable and poor situation all around. Add in a gun charge, having already been instituted in the NFL’s drug use system, and continued injury concerns, and nearly every red flag that had been associated with Foster had been hit.

The final straw was an arrest for first-degree misdemeanor domestic-violence battery while on the road in the team hotel in Tampa.

The SF 49ers unceremoniously cut ties with Foster shortly after.

Foster was a high-risk, high-reward selection. Teams that hit on these are applauded. Teams that miss end up with nothing to show for their troubles.

Grade: F

Round 3, Pick 66: CB Ahkello Witherspoon

Long, lanky, and athletic, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon fit a theme the SF 49ers were looking for at as they moved to the Cover 3 system popularized in Seattle. In those days, Saleh didn’t run much of schematic variation, and the responsibilities of the cornerback were largely cut-and-dry: take a deep third of the field and lock it down. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s what the Seattle Cover 3 needed from its corners.

Witherspoon had the size and the arm length necessary to play press and take on multiple types of receivers, and the Niners were hoping he’d continue to develop and be able to truly take advantage of his late growth spurt and physical tools.

They weren’t necessarily wrong. Though Witherspoon looked fantastic in limited opportunities in part due to the “Dontae Johnson” effect, where the corner opposite of Johnson got targeted so few times because the other side was a much easier completion, he also finished with two interceptions and looked to take the next step. 2018 was a bit of a step back, but he started 2019 off in phenomenal form, playing at a Pro Bowl level before a foot injury took his momentum, much of his season, and seemingly his confidence.

Witherspoon has showed signs of reaching his 2019 highs in recent weeks in 2020, playing himself potentially back onto the roster. With very clear potential and times of playing up to that level, Witherspoon doesn’t get an F-grade, though his lack of consistency keeps him from going any higher.

Grade: D+

Round 3, Pick 104: QB C.J. Beathard

One could detail the need for a developmental quarterback and how the progression of C.J. Beathard could have reaped great dividends for the SF 49ers. Beathard’s toughness and the spark he gave when he came into a game against Washington as a rookie also speak measures, too.

But frankly, Beathard hasn’t shown himself to be a NFL-level quarterback. On top of that, he was a massive reach in the third round, with him likely having been available in the fifth, or highest in the mid-fourth.

The pick did not make sense then, and nothing Beathard has done since has helped explain it.

Grade: F

Round 4, Pick 121: RB Joe Williams

Generally, when it comes to running backs, Shanahan should get the benefit of the doubt. There was something about Williams that appealed to him, some trait Shanahan thought he could use to craft a productive running back out of.

But, this pick might be the worst of them all.

Given it’s just a mid-round pick, the selection of Williams doesn’t hurt, but since he never played a game for the SF 49ers, there’s no way his selection could be anything other than an F. With a hazardous fumbling habit and a lack of elite and above-average traits, it’s telling the pick the Niners traded out of to trade up for Williams produced a more productive back than him.

Grade: F

Round 5, Pick 146: TE George Kittle

There’s not much that has to be said about the “People’s Tight End.” The unquestioned steal of the 2017 draft, Kittle has been a shining star for the SF 49er.

He broke the single-season receiving record for a tight end in just his second year in the NFL, he’s the 1B to the 1A that is the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce in the tight end echelon, Kittle blocks on the level of an offensive linemen in the run game, he’s a selfless leader, he’s a YAC monster, and his contract, while expensive, seemingly underpays him relative to his production.

Kittle is a top-10 wide receiver and an above-average run blocker rolled into one human being.

There is absolutely nothing the SF 49ers could possibly regret about this pick. The only question is how did teams pass over him for four rounds?

Grade; A+

Round 5, Pick 177: WR Trent Taylor

Trent Taylor was supposed to be the 49ers’ version of Wes Welker, a slot-receiving god who could leverage the sticks with ease and eat up yards in the middle of the field. In 2017, he made good on that promise. But 2018 came with a significant reduction of production, and 2019 was a nightmare year for Taylor as he struggled with a foot injury that never seemed to settle itself.

In 2020, Taylor looked slow and lacked the burst that made him a good slot player. He’s very much a candidate to miss the roster next year. That said, for a fifth-round pick, one good year of production and and the capacity to stick on an NFL roster are enough for a passing grade.

Grade: C-

Round 6, Pick 198: DT D.J. Jones

Despite being drafted 195 picks after Thomas, D.J. Jones has been the more productive lineman for the SF 49ers.

Being such a late-round pick, roster politics, and the existence of veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell blocked Jones’ path to early playing time. But slowly, Jones continued to develop more and more before taking a sizeable role as the early down nose tackle in 2019. He played well and has played well in 2020, though injuries have been the largest barrier between Jones and a true rise.

That said, a beyond-productive player taken in a round when most players who aren’t specialists end up out of the NFL, that’s a major win.

Grade: A+

Round 6, Pick 202: DE Pita Taumoepenu

EDGE Pita Taumoepenu was taken as a developmental prospect to eventually, if everything broke right, be a competent LEO as a pass-rusher. Everything did not break right, and Taumoepenu was cut by the SF 49ers and now is bouncing around the NFL, currently on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad.

As a draft pick, there isn’t much to say, he didn’t pan out, but even though this pick is an F, it doesn’t mean much for the roster and the draft class.

Grade: F

Round 7, Pick 229: DB Adrian Colbert

Adrian Colbert was, at best case, going to be a special teams producer who made his wages as a gunner for the SF 49ers. So, it should be understood his production and play his rookie year was perhaps the single greatest development for San Francisco. As a seventh-round rookie, Colbert was given an opportunity to start because of injuries and ran away with his production, offering a hard hit and decent coverage. He looked like a solid player who could even be a competent starter.

In 2018, things dropped down dramatically before a high-ankle sprain took him out of the year. A lack of snaps in the preseason because of another ankle injury sealed his fate.

As a draft pick in the seventh round, Colbert exceeded expectations, and though he isn’t on the roster, that production his rookie year is more than enough to give him a passing grade.

Grade: B-

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Matt Breida, Nick Mullens, Kendrick Bourne

If a team can get anything positive out of their UDFAs, it’s a win. If the team gets a competent depth piece, it’s most definitely a win. If it gets a spot starter, it’s one of the best moves.

So the SF 49ers managed to acquire their starting running back for two years whom they sold “low” on by trading him for a fifth-round pick, their backup quarterback who has put up the third-most passing yards in NFL history through his first 13 games (which is a very misleading stat), and arguably the best player of them all, a possession receiver in Kendrick Bourne who has developed to be a very valuable and reliable third receiver.

That’s incredible value, full stop.

Grade: A+

Overall Draft Grade

The SF 49ers horribly messed up the top part of their draft, especially given the talent they passed up on in the process. That alone puts this draft, the very first of the Lynch-Shanahan regime, in poor position. But they made up for it by drafting a bona fide All-Pro player and acquiring, either in the draft or through UDFAs, a few quality starting players and a backup quarterback.

It’s hard to grade this draft, given how Kittle alone might make it quality. But given the failures at the top, the SF 49ers get a D+, with an almost-certain F had they taken a player more consummate with his draft position in the fifth round.

. . 2017 49ERS NFL DRAFT CLASS . D+.