History Lesson: The 49ers 2007 Draft

I've got a confession to make. I'm an NFL Draft junkie. Like millions of you, I devour every mock draft I can get my hands on, regardless of whether it's coming from a reputable writer who's got legitimate sources across the league or some unknown blogger whose readership consists of a few friends and relatives. I just can't help myself – I love this time of year.

What's sadder still is that once the crazy, drama-laden, head-scratching, weekend-long orgy that is draftapalooza finally ends, I invest even more time checking out the draft grades those analysts, columnists and hacks assign to the respective NFL teams. I compare the grades and make my own judgments, usually based on who made the most convincing arguments. I spend the morning after the draft lost in my laptop, comparing and contrasting the analyses of Mel Kiper, Todd McShay, Peter King and countless others in between spoonfuls of my raisin bran, thinking to myself, "Let's see, McShay gave the Broncos a ‘B-' because he really liked that linebacker they took in the third round, but Kiper gave them a ‘C' because he thought they could've used a defensive tackle instead…"

Clearly, I had two choices: To either find a professional excuse to devote as much time to the draft as I do, or seek the help of a professional therapist. I think I chose the right option, but I won't know for sure for a while.

And that brings me to my point. It's nothing short of silly and a complete waste of time for you, me, or anyone to critique a team's draft the day after. Heck, it doesn't even make much sense to do it a year after. The truth of the matter is that after the first couple of rounds even the most plugged in analysts in the country aren't all that familiar with most of the players picked, and everyone is pretty much throwing darts with a blindfold on, hoping to guess the future of a kid they've seen play maybe once or twice. Drafting is anything but an exact science and even players who have all the talent and drive in the world need time to develop and acclimate themselves to the pro game.

Every player picked between April 22-24 this year will have the physical tools to play in the league, of that I'm certain. What we can't predict is which ones will be overwhelmed by the complexity of an NFL playbook, which ones will let the money and lifestyle get to them and which ones will use being picked in the fifth round as motivation for proving all their critics wrong. As with most things in life, it's all about opportunity. Some rookies will be buried on the bench behind proven veterans for years and won't get a shot to show their stuff. Others will be forced into action because of injuries to the starter and will have to sink or swim immediately. It's largely fate that determines which draft pick pans out and which one doesn't.

That's why waiting three years after the fact to give each draft a grade makes a lot more sense. Knowledge is power and having seen these guys play for a while; we're now armed with enough information to make proper assessments. It's just a lot smarter way of doing things and one I strongly suggest all of you do in the future.

Will I take my own advice? Of course not; but without further adieu – here's a look back at the 2007 49ers draft.

1st Round, pick 11: LB Patrick Willis, Ole Miss – Believe it or not, but Willis, a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, wasn't a no-brainer pick in the 49ers "war room" three years ago. Mike Nolan, who was both the coach and general manager back then, thought he was a bit undersized and having seen Willis up close in the locker room, it's easy to understand why. Sure, Willis is chiseled, but at 6'1" and around 240 lbs. he's hardly some hulking brute. As legend has it, it was Scot McCloughan, who was the team's Vice President of Player Personnel back then, who jumped on the table and implored Nolan to pick the All-American linebacker, insisting that Willis had the range to make plays from sideline to sideline, the instincts to always be around the ball and the desire to be the very best, like an evolutionary Mike Singletary. Nolan thankfully listened and Willis might be the best overall player from this draft, though RB Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets CB Darrelle Revis are in the discussion.

1st Round, pick 28: OT Joe Staley, Central Michigan – The 49ers liked Staley enough that they traded their 4th-round pick (110th overall), as well as 2008's 1st-rounder, to the New England Patriots to select him near the bottom of the first round. He established himself right away as one of the best linemen on the team and looked like a future Pro-Bowler at right tackle, but the Niners had other ideas, moving Staley to the left side beginning in 2008. He's been pretty good there, but not quite as dominant as the coaches had envisioned. He missed seven games with a knee injury last season and there is speculation that he could move back to the right side if the 49ers select a left tackle high in the draft. Interestingly, the Patriots used the 4th-round pick they got from the Niners to land receiver Randy Moss from the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders, naturally, used it to pick John Bowie, a no-name corner from Cincinnati.

2nd Round: None – The good news is that the 49ers shrewdly traded this pick to Indianapolis for their 4th-rounder (126th overall) and the Colts 1st rounder in 2008, thereby recouping the 1st rounder they gave the Patriots to draft Staley. The bad news is they used it on DT Kentwan Balmer out of North Carolina, who's been a huge disappointment so far. The Colts selected OT Tony Ugoh out of Arkansas, who also hasn't amounted to much. Had the 49ers just hung onto the pick, they could've chosen anyone of four future Pro-Bowlers picked between 44th and 59th that year: WR Sidney Rice out of South Carolina (Vikings), LB LaMarr Woodley from Michigan (Pittsburgh Steelers), WR Steve Smith out of USC (New York Giants) and C Ryan Kalil, also from USC (Carolina Panthers).

3rd Round , pick 76: WR Jason Hill, Washington State – After a rookie year spent largely observing from the sidelines, Hill seemed to break through in his sophomore campaign, especially in the second half of the 2008 season, and finished the year with 30 grabs for 317 years and two scores. He was dinged up a bit during training camp last year though and got lost in the shuffle, with new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye preferring to use only two wideouts almost exclusively. Hill, who wondered aloud if a change of scenery wouldn't be better for him at times last season, will have to fight for playing time with '08 free agent signee Brandon Jones and probably some rookie this year.

3rd Round, pick 97: DE Ray McDonald, Florida – A compensatory pick in '07, McDonald hasn't yet been able to unseat fellow end Isaac Sopoaga to start opposite Justin Smith. He's the superior pass rusher, but not as sturdy versus the run, which is mandatory in the 3-4 defense the Niners use. He saw time mostly as a defensive tackle in the nickel package last year and recorded a career best three sacks, but coaches are looking for more out of him.

4th Round, pick 126: S Dashon Goldson, Washington – After apprenticing under Mark Roman for two years, Goldson – another McCloughan favorite – finally got his chance last year and looks to be a star in the making. He started all 16 games and had racked up 94 tackles, a team-best four interceptions, three forced fumbles and two sacks. The hard-hitting Goldson plays like a heat-seeking missile and just got better and better as the season went on. He's poised to challenge Arizona's Adrian Wilson for the right to be called the best safety in the NFC West.

4th Round, pick 135: DE Joe Cohen, Florida – The 49ers used their other compensatory to select another Gator end and Cohen made McDonald look like Reggie White. The team released him quickly and he bounced from the Miami Dolphins to the Raiders before finding a home with the Detroit Lions. He played the first seven games of his career last year and even sacked Brett Favre in a 27-10 loss to the Vikings.

5th Round, pick 147: CB Tarell Brown, Texas – After spending his first two seasons as a reserve, Brown lost out to fellow corner Shawntae Spencer in a training camp battle to start on the right side thanks mainly to a sprained toe that kept him from practicing. However, he ended up supplanting left corner Nate Clements and started opposite Spencer late in the season, performing very well when given the chance. The team thought enough of Brown to give him a contract extension and he's very much in the mix to be a full-time starter in 2010.

6th Round, pick 186: RB Thomas Clayton, Kansas State – Clayton played well in successive pre-seasons in 2007 and 2008, but wasn't able to make the 53-man roster either year. He was off to another good August start in 2009, but tore his ACL against the Denver Broncos, the injury ending his season before it really began. If he has any future in the NFL, it won't be with the Niners, as he's now a free agent. 7th Round: None – The 49ers made one more deal in the 7th-round, sending their pick (221st overall) and backup QB Ken Dorsey to the Cleveland Browns for QB Trent Dilfer. The Browns traded the pick to the Chicago Bears for C/G Lennie Friedman, and Chicago used it to select CB Trumaine McBride from Ole Miss. Dilfer, meanwhile, was supposed to serve as a mentor for Alex Smith, but wound up playing more than anyone imagined once Smith suffered a separated shoulder. Dilfer appeared in seven games, starting six, and completed 51.6% of his passes for 1,166 yards, with seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He had a QB rating of 55.1 and took it as a hint that it was time to hang ‘em up and find a cozy analyst gig with ESPN, alongside Kiper and McShay.

Looking back on it, I'd give the 49ers a "B+" for the '07 draft. Willis looks like a future Hall-of-Famer, Staley and Goldson both have Pro-Bowl potential, and Brown could very well be a fourth starter from this group, or at the very least a contributing nickel corner. Sure, it would've been nice to get more production from two 3rd-rounders, Hill and McDonald, but not too many stars have emerged from this draft class outside of the first two rounds. The only blunder was giving away that 2nd-rounder for what turned out to be a wasted pick in 2008, but they couldn't have gotten Goldson without that trade, so the Niners still come out looking pretty good.

Hopefully we'll have similarly good things to say about this upcoming draft in 2013, but I know that none of us will wait that long to give our opinions.

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