If the 49ers are to overtake the Seahawks in the NFC West, San Francisco is going to need to get an impact player in the first round of the draft in May.
Over the past three seasons, the offseason dueling between the 49ers and Seahawks has been almost as interesting as the games on the field, with the teams each bringing in impact free agents and terrific talent through the draft. Together, they’ve helped make the NFC West the toughest division in the NFL.
This year, the 49ers have the 30th overall selection in the first round, not a prime position to bring in an impactful player. Yet based on general manager Trent Baalke’s track record – and the 49ers’ amazing success in the first round over the past decade – it’s very possible that the Niners could land another young star.
With an expected dozen picks going into the draft – including two picks in both the second and third rounds – San Francisco is in position to make a deal to move up much higher in the first round to get a player they want. It’s the formula the 49ers used last year when they moved up 18 spots to get safety Eric Reid – who proved to be one of the best defensive rookies in the NFL.
And Reid is the rule rather than exception to the 49ers’ run of first-round success. Consider San Francisco’s first-round picks since 2005:
2005: Quarterback Alex Smith. Though he had his ups and downs, Smith blossomed under head coach Jim Harbaugh to take the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game, and has become a solid NFL starter.
2006: Tight end Vernon Davis. One of the NFL’s best.
2007: Linebacker Patrick Willis and left offensive tackle Joe Staley. Both perennial Pro Bowlers.
2008: Defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer. Well, that was a whiff.
2009: Wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Good and still getting better.
2010: Right offensive tackle Anthony Davis and left guard Mike Iupati. Two terrific additions to the offensive line.
2011: Linebacker Aldon Smith: One of the NFL’s best pass rushers.
2012: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. Whiff No. 2, after Balmer.
2013: Safety Reid: Instant starter.
While other teams have a string of first-round disappointments over the same span, the 49ers still have eight terrific, contributing players on the team from the past decade of first-round picks.
Chris Wesseling of NFL.com wrote this week that the 49ers’ stretch of first-round success is “almost unparalleled.”
And, the key for the team this year in the draft – as it was last year – is the stockpile of choices Baalke has to use as bargaining chips. With a deep roster already, he can pursue quality, not quantity. That formula worked in 2013. The Niners are hoping for similar success this May.