Terrell Owens was brash and bold and a tempestuous talent the Niners found too difficult to hold. Julian Peterson was lean and mean and a play-making machine who recently bolted from the operation for mind-boggling dollar amounts that, particularly for this team, were simply too far obscene.
But while they still were around together during San Francisco's brief fling with respectability and the playoffs at the turn of the millennium, they gave the 49ers the kind of ungodly talent every NFL team must have to get over the hump and reach for the top.
And, in Peterson's case, the kind of character, leadership and team-first mentality that every franchise needs from its best players.
Fast forward to the present – past those forgettable years of football fallout in 49erland – and the barren landscape just now is starting to sprout new signs of life and hope after the tumultuous blowout that leveled the franchise during that rocky transition from Dennis Erickson to Mike Nolan to now.
Those sprouts are the seeds Nolan planted last year, when he was carrying out the unenviable but necessary tasks of shoveling dirt and tearing down the operation so that it could someday arrive again.
You've heard repeatedly over the past year all about laying the foundation and erecting the framework. Well, now that some semblance of stability has been restored, it's time to add some luxury parts than can transform the average into a cut above.
Hello, Vernon Davis.
Glad to meet you, Manny Lawson.
Franchise saviors? Of course not. Potential game-changers? You betcha. When the 49ers used the No. 6 overall selection in the first round to draft Davis – one of the most athletic physical specimens ever to enter the NFL at tight end – Nolan went into his now customary mantra of how "no one player can take us to the Promised Land."
Of course, that is true. But frankly, it's getting a little old hearing it. The 49ers DO need prospects of superstar potential to take them to the Promised Land. One or two players – the right players – CAN make a difference.
The 49ers were forced to bet on the come last year, when they had the luck or misfortune – take your pick – of owning the No. 1 overall selection in a weak draft, because Alex Smith was the only pick that could have been or should have been made. You take a tall, smart, athletic quarterback with considerable upside with the No. 1 pick when nothing better is out there, and that certainly was the case last year.
But nobody could expect Smith to be ready at the age or from the level of competition he arrived, and the Niners knew that probably better than anyone. As the team grew around him, so would Smith. As the talent around him got better, so would he. And so would the 49ers.
Reggie Bush aside, there might not have been a more promising offensive prospect available in the 2006 draft than Davis. He has Pro Bowl written all over him, and the dearly departed Peterson is San Francisco's only first-round pick since 1994 – that's 12 years, folks – to be invited to Hawaii the week after the Super Bowl.
Davis' formidable physical and athletic prowess is documented later in this issue, and Lawson also comes to San Francisco with the measureables, workout numbers and pedigree that would make any coach glow. While not in the same league as those two, there are a few other prospects the 49ers plucked from draft weekend that could help the team with the gift of talent and skill they will bring.
And the Niners took some legitimate shots at getting those types, too, taking best athletes available instead of players at positions of need after the talent pool began to evaporate rapidly as it always does after the first couple of rounds. But Davis and Lawson are the difference-makers. Davis could be that big, bruising, playing-angry, catch-me-if-you can, touchdown-scoring offensive playmaker the 49ers haven't had since Owens. Lawson could be that versatile, athletic, flying-around-the-field, pass rushing force the 49ers haven't had since Peterson.
This isn't exactly an original idea.
"That guy," Davis said, referring to you-know-who, "he could run. He just makes plays. After he gets the ball, he runs hard, he runs strong, he runs over people. I can see my game a little bit like Terrell Owens."
Everybody wants to compare Lawson to somebody, be it Jason Taylor, Simeon Rice, or even Peterson himself. Lawson sticks to a guy who he knows best.
"I'm my own person and I am going to be the best that I can be for this team," he said. "Coach has said he's building this team with guys that can lead and that's just the role I'm going to take on the field. There are a lot of things I can do for the 49ers. They made a great choice and they have a complete package in one guy to fulfill many roles."
Has it also been mentioned that Davis and Lawson have that take-no-gruff, supreme air of confidence about them that seems a prerequisite quality for all the great ones?
So, let's review: Character? Davis and Lawson both have it. Talent? It's a God-given feature of both. Assured disposition? Well, you wouldn't want them any other way.
And, since speed rules in the NFL, you've got to like that Davis and Lawson are former track stars who were two of the fastest – bar none – players in college football last season. And both have the engine and chassis to go with that speed.
"Speed is a plus," Nolan said. "But you want to get football players first. I don't want to draft off a combine. When you're picking as high as we did, in both cases you want to get as clean a player as you can in every way. I feel great about the two we got. We got two players who are going to be with us a while. Coming in the house, clean in a lot of ways and good players most importantly. And they'll look the part when they come in."
Now, as long as they play like it, the 49ers are really on to something.
Craig Massei can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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