49ers draft list: Top 12 rookie seasons

The 49ers once drafted the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in back-to-back seasons, but that kind of thing hasn't happened in a while. Since selecting two studly tackles in consecutive seasons to form the nucleus of their last championship defense, the Niners have drafted few players who've had a significant impact as rookies. With two first-round picks later this month, they're hoping to add at least one player who could be considered for this list, the top 12 rookie seasons in team history.

1. Ronnie Lott, 1981: Lott was a dominating defensive force from the moment he stepped onto the field in his rookie season, earning first-team All-Pro honors and leading the 49ers to their first Super Bowl title. The No. 8 overall pick in the first round, Lott switched to cornerback after being an All-American safety at USC and had one of the biggest impacts by a rookie defensive back in league history. Lott became the undisputed leader of a young San Francisco secondary that started three rookies, returning three of his seven interceptions for touchdowns to begin his Hall of Fame career. The only reason Lott missed out on NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors is because a guy named Lawrence Taylor happened to be selected six picks ahead of him.

2. Hugh McElhenny, 1952: The versatile threat flashed onto the scene as the No. 9 overall selection in the first round and immediately gave a strong indication of things to come with touchdown runs of 89 and 82 yards, a 94-yard punt return and a 77-yard reception on his way to earning NFL Rookie of the Year honors – the only 49er ever to earn that title before the award was split into two categories for offense and defense in 1967. The elusive McElhenny stunned the NFL with his big-play ability, earning first-team All-Pro honors and being named Sport Magazine's Player of the Year while rushing for 684 yards (with a 7.0 average), averaging 14.1 yards on 26 receptions, averaging 14.2 yards on 20 punt returns and leading the team with 10 touchdowns to begin his Hall of Fame career. His 170 yards rushing in an October game against the Dallas Texans remains a team record for rookies.

3. Bryant Young, 1994: The Notre Dame All-American filled one of the few voids in a veteran lineup and became one of the final pieces in the puzzle for San Francisco's 1994 Super Bowl champions, earning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFC Rookie of the Year honors in the process. One of three rookies to start on a roster full of established players, Young immediately became a rock in the middle of a San Francisco defense that ranked second in the league against the rush. The No. 7 overall pick in the first round, Young started all 16 regular-season and three postseason games, led the team's defensive linemen with 49 tackles, had six sacks, four passes defensed and forced a fumble that was returned 49 yards for a touchdown by safety Tim McDonald.

4. Bruce Taylor, 1970: The talented cornerback/kick returner made a huge impact on the first of San Francisco's three consecutive NFC West championship teams as the No. 17 overall selection of the first round in 1970. (Defensive end Cedrick Hardman, who would go on to become San Francisco's all-time leader in sacks, was the No. 9 overall pick that year). Taylor led the 49ers in interceptions and led the NFC with a 12.0 average on 43 punt returns while becoming the first San Francisco player to earn both NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFC Rookie of the Year honors. He also returned a missed field goal 92 yards for a touchdown in a December game against New Orleans.

5. Dana Stubblefield, 1993: An impact player from the get-go, Stubblefield stepped right into the starting lineup at nose tackle, then became the team's dominant player along the defensive line at tackle when the 49ers switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme in October. Stubblefield, selected No. 26 overall in the first round, led the 49ers with 10.5 sacks and earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors for a team that reached the NFC Championship Game.

6. Vic Washington, 1971: Washington was part of the team's great 1970 draft but did not play for the 49ers until 1971 and was considered by the NFL as a rookie that season. A fourth-round pick (No. 87 overall) out of Wyoming as a wide receiver, Washington immediately worked his way into the starting lineup for the defending NFC West champions at halfback and set team rookie records for carries (191) and rushing yards (811) while lifting the 49ers back into the NFC Championship Game for the second consecutive year. He also contributed 36 receptions (No. 7 on San Francisco's all-time single-season rookie list) and led the 49ers with seven touchdowns on his way to the Pro Bowl. A versatile, multi-threat player, Washington also averaged 26.0 yards on 33 kickofff returns, which ranked eighth in the NFC, and set a team rookie record with 179 kickoff return yards in a game against New Orleans.

7. Ken Willard, 1965: The No. 3 overall pick in the first round behind running back Tucker Frederickson (New York Giants) and quarterback Joe Namath (New York Jets), Willard wasted no time establishing himself as a star in 1965, becoming the team's leading rusher for the first of seven consecutive seasons while earning the first of four consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl. Willard's 778 yards rushing were the most ever by a 49ers rookie at the time (and still stands No. 2 on the team's rookie list behind Washington) and ranked fourth in the NFC. He also caught 26 passes and finished second on the team with nine touchdowns while earning second-team All-Pro honors.

8. Jerry Rice, 1985: It took Rice a while to get going in his first NFL season, but by the end of it, he had beaten out solid veteran starter Freddie Solomon and already was setting team records while averaging 18.9 yards on his 49 receptions. The No. 16 overall selection in the first round after the 49ers traded up to get him, Rice was named NFC Rookie of the Year and set a team record for rookies with 927 receiving yards. His 241 yards receiving in a December game against the Rams remains a team record for rookies (Rice later set the team record with 289 yards) and also is a Monday Night Football record.

9. Roger Craig, 1983: The 21st player selected in the second round (No. 49 overall), Craig stepped into the starting lineup as a rookie and immediately displayed the stuff that would make him one of the top two-way backfield threats of his era. The high-stepping standout rushed for 725 yards to go with 48 receptions, and his 12 touchdowns were the most ever in a season by a 49ers rookie and the most on a team that reached the NFC Championship Game.

10. Dave Baker, 1959: The No. 5 overall pick in the first round, Baker was drafted as a quarterback/halfback out of Oklahoma but immediately found a home in the San Francisco secondary at safety, where he led the team with five interceptions on his way to the Pro Bowl and honorable mention All-Pro honors. The next year, Baker led the NFL with 10 interceptions.

11. Kermit Alexander, 1963: The No. 8 overall selection in the first round, Alexander immediately became a force in the San Francisco secondary, starting 11 games at cornerback and the other three at safety. A star halfback in college, Alexander led the 49ers with five interceptions – he would lead the 49ers in that department in six of his seven seasons with the team – and also averaged 26.6 yards on 24 kickoff returns.

12. Charles Haley, 1986: Only a fourth-round pick – the No. 96 selection overall and just the fifth player taken by the 49ers in a legendary draft class that's considered one of the best in NFL history – Haley immediately made his impact felt as an instant pass-rushing force, leading the team with 12 sacks even though he wasn't even a regular starter. He also recorded the first interception of his career.


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