Considering the way many are viewing the 2017 NFL Draft board, with all its varying talent and depth, the 49ers at No. 2 and No. 34 are in a position to land two potential franchise players. A pair of strong picks at the top of a single draft has been a way for a bottom-dwelling squad to quickly climb the ladder—the Raiders and Seahawks being two recent examples.
That got me thinking—who are the best draft tandems in 49ers history?
Instead of continuing to poke the crowd with the proverbial mock draft stick—frankly, they seem to be wearing thin—I thought I’d take a look at what’s real. Now, the following will present a top-10 list of the best two picks to come out of one draft for the 49ers. It will be based on achievements, single-season or -game performances, career statistics, impact on the franchise, character and even where they resonate with the fan base.
10) 2010: Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman
OG Iupati, Round 1, Pick No. 17, Idaho
LB Bowman, Round 3, Pick No. 91, Penn St.
With three Pro Bowls and an All-Pro nod for Iupati, and Bowman earning respect as a perennial All-Pro in his healthy seasons, these two were the strength of the 2010 draft. Not Iupati and Anthony Davis. Iupati and Bowman were the final two pieces that helped launch a short run of one of the most physical two-way teams in recent history. The two would be higher up if it weren’t for missed games due to injuries and the eventual departure of Iupati.
9) 1991: Ricky Watters and Merton Hanks
RB Waters, Round 2, Pick No. 45, Notre Dame
DB Hanks, Round 5, Pick No. 122, Iowa
Watters put up Hall of Fame numbers over his career, which he started in San Francisco with three straight Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl championship. In his final year in the Bay, which culminated in a title, he totaled 1,596 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. Hanks is still fourth in 49ers history with 31 interceptions, and had four defensive touchdowns in 107 starts. An All-Pro safety, Hanks also started in the 1994 Super Bowl victory.
8) 2006: Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker
TE Davis, Round 1, Pick No. 6, Maryland
WR/TE Walker, Round 6, Pick No. 175, Central Missouri St.
This was the draft that landed the 49ers a dynamic pair of uber-athletic tight ends that racked up a combined 10,454 yards and 86 receiving touchdowns for the franchise. Davis, the freakiest tight end to ever grace a combine and an NFL Draft legend, left his mark on the franchise. His playoff efforts, highlighted by The Catch III in the NFC Divisional Playoff against the New Orleans Saints, will forever be remembered. And in tandem with Walker, the two defined what was essentially a wide-receiver-less passing era for the 49ers.
7) 1994: Bryant Young and William Floyd
DT Young, Round 1, Pick No. 7, Notre Dame
FB Floyd, Round 1, Pick No. 28, Florida St.
B.Y. was the one always-great player during a period of time that saw the 49ers exit the playoffs sooner and sooner, until they stopped making it altogether and starting vying for high first-round picks annually. But through it all, he was a model player, and a productive one at that. Young, a four-time All-Pro, holds the most sacks in franchise history with 89.5; 23 more than second-place Charles Haley and fourth-most by a defensive tackle in NFL history.
He also has a ring, which he claimed as a rookie starter in ’94.
Meanwhile, a stocky Floyd would thump defenders, paving the way for mediocre 700-800-yard rushers—and Steve Young—while charging for 250-300 yards and a handful of scores himself. He was a very productive player and a fixture at FB for four years for the 49ers right before the peak of that iron man era. Floyd was a memorable fullback among a pack of good ones.
6) 2005: Alex Smith and Frank Gore
QB Smith, Round 1, Pick No. 1, Utah
RB Gore, Round 3, Pick No. 65, Miami
I can hear the moans and groans already.
But Alex Smith, while not what you wanted in a No. 1 overall pick, finished on a high note. And his situation reinforced the importance of coaching across the league—Smith just had a bad run of it early. But once surrounded with the right people, he guided the 49ers to their first playoff game since 2002, and played some of the most efficient football in the NFL. The 49ers in 2011 finished 13-3 and Smith had a league-best 1.1 interception rate (17 TD, 5 INT) and a 61.3 completion percentage.
Smith has won double-digit games in 4 of 6 seasons since meeting Jim Harbaugh, for what it’s worth. And while Smith has his bittersweet place in 49ers history, the real reason this grouping sits so high is due to No. 21, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Franklin Delano Gore.
With his slippery style and low center of gravity, the patient, strong-bodied runner showed us the value of vision vs. the measurable combo of speed and agility. And it’s all been a Cinderella story. As we were recently reminded, Gore scored a 6 on the Wonderlic, one of the worst recorded scores ever. He had an admitted learning disability. He had scary knee and hip injuries. But, the worker he is, Gore channeled that into a Hall of Fame career. Now, he has a chance to finish as the fifth, or even fourth all-time leading rusher, behind just Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.
5) 1983: Roger Craig and Jesse Sapolu
RB Craig, Round 2, Pick No. 49, Nebraska
C Sapolu, Round 11, Pick No. 289, Hawaii
Craig, a three-time Super Bowl champion, four-time Pro Bowler, NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, was a dense high-stepping train of a running back. In 1985 he became the first player in NFL history to rush for and receive at least 1,000 yards in the same season. Craig’s career puts him up there with San Francisco’s elite history of offensive players.
Sapolu, a two-time All-Pro interior offensive lineman, started 154 games over his 13-year career spent solely with the 49ers. In that time, he emerged as a strength in an offensive line that blocked for four Super Bowls titles. He is only one of six 49ers to have four rings. Together this duo helped push San Francisco into a dominant late 80’s run.
4) 1986: Tom Rathman and Charles Haley
RB Rathman, Round 3, Pick No. 56, Nebraska
DE Haley, Round 4, Pick No. 96, JMU
Rathman was a fierce two-time Super Bowl winning full back and outlet weapon for the 49ers. He gave the franchise eight years of a smash-mouth element to complement a ballet of a passing game and 14 years of service as a coach. His contributions to the organization really are more than meets the eye. In particular, Rathman’s relationship with and development of Gore was invaluable.
Now Haley on the other hand was more of a mercenary, but remains the most accomplished homegrown edge rusher in the team's history. The All-Pro defender accrued 66.5 sacks, second only to Bryant Young, and won two Super Bowls. In four of his first six seasons, he finished with double-digit sacks, including a career-high 16.0 in 1990.
3) 2007: Patrick Willis and Joe Staley
LB Willis, Round 1, Pick No. 11, Ole Miss
OT Staley, Round 1, Pick No. 28, Central Michigan
Willis is one of the top inside linebackers of all-time, and very possibly a future Hall of Famer with just eight seasons in the books. From Day 1 he made it known to the league who he was and what he was capable of, capturing seven Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro selections. He was one of the top reasons for the resurrection of the 49ers. And when you look back at the great NFL defenses, Willis will be remembered for captaining one of the better ones.
Staley, who, if he isn’t a Hall of Famer, is a fringe Hall of Famer. The athletic All-Pro tackle is still writing the last chapter to a phenomenal career. Like Willis, from the day he entered the facility, Staley was a consummate pro on and off the field. The two together both became faces of the franchise, leading and defining an era of 49ers football.
But, largely, Willis being in the argument for the best at his position all-time puts this tandem ahead of other previously noted pairs of contributors on championship teams.
2) 1981: Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright
FS Lott, Round 1, Pick No. 8, USC
CB Wright, Round 2, Pick No. 40, Missouri
Bill Walsh went defense heavy in this draft, spending four of the first five picks on the secondary. Three emerged, the other being Carlton Williamson. Lott, though, is arguably the greatest safety, maybe even defensive back, in the history of the league. He has a franchise-best 51 interceptions and 721 total tackles, second on the team only to Willis. 10 Pro Bowls, eight first-team All-Pro nods, four rings and a dog mentality also helped solidify the legend of Ronnie Lott.
Wright was a back-to-back Pro Bowler and All-Pro cornerback from 1984-1985 and won four Super Bowls as a starting cornerback for the 49ers. He also famously preserved the 49ers’ 1981 Super Bowl berth, their first ever, by making a touchdown-saving tackle on Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson pre-horse-collar era.
This pair ranks high on the list because the 49ers would have never been the dynasty they were without a championship-caliber defense and All-Pros on that side of the ball. That started with Lott and Wright.
1) 1979: Joe Montana and Dwight Clark
QB Montana, Round 3, Pick No. 82, Notre Dame
WR Clark, Round 10, Pick No. 249, Clemson
It’s irrefutable that these two were the premier draft duo for the franchise. They sparked the beginning of the 49ers dynasty and carried that momentum into a decade of some of the best offensive football the league has ever seen. Montana, long heralded as the greatest quarterback to ever do it, went a perfect 4-for-4 in Super Bowls and never tossed a pick. Nobody will ever look at the number 16 on a quarterback the same way again.
Clark, well, he perhaps holds the most special place in 49ers lore—the iconic standstill moment of a gravity-defying man leaping out of nowhere to catch a nearly overthrown prayer. The Catch, or Genesis for the Bay Area fans, was the most pivotal moment in the team’s history, and it was accomplished by a 10th round pick Bill Walsh discovered when he was working out a quarterback at Clemson.
And from there on, he was Joe’s guy for two Super Bowls and five division crowns.
Media courtesy CBS Sports, SF Gate, SI, Michael Zagaris