The San Francisco 49ers knew they were receiving a special player when they selected former Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft. At the ’07 Senior Bowl, Niners Head Coach Mike Singletary, who was at the time the linebackers coach in San Francisco, coached Willis the entire week in Mobile, Alabama and got to know his eventual pupil very well on and off the field. After his tremendous showing at the Senior Bowl, Willis continued his impressive offseason leading up to the draft at the Scouting Combine and during his Pro Day. There was no question he would be a first round pick, it was just a matter of how high he would be selected.
The Niners needed help on defense, and as a rookie, Willis was exactly what they needed in their front seven. A starter in all 16 games, the top prospect in the 49ers organization put together one of the finest first year defensive performances in recent memory, as he recorded 174 tackles (135 solo), four sacks and two forced fumbles. For his efforts, Willis received numerous accolades including the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, First-Team All-Pro and a trip to Hawaii to represent the Niners in the Pro Bowl. Last season, Willis enjoyed similar success starting in all 16 games while collecting 141 tackles, a sack and an interception, which he returned for an 86-yard touchdown. Willis made his second trip to the Pro Bowl and was named to the All-Pro Team once again; this time as a second team member. Entering his third year in the league as a bonafide superstar, Willis has been slowed this preseason after he suffered an ankle injury during training camp. Willis has yet to appear in an exhibition game, but that’s more for precautionary reasons. If the season were to begin today, Willis would be on the field and ready to dominate. A top-two inside linebacker in the NFC, Willis has cemented his place as a perennial Pro Bowl player and if he continues to be as durable as he’s been in his first two years, a trip to Canton is in his future.
One of the most celebrated college football players in a long while was the Niners first round pick in 2009, former Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree. A career that featured 231 receptions for 3,127 yards and 41 touchdowns in just two collegiate seasons, Crabtree still remains unsigned with the Niners after he fell to the tenth pick in the first round. Even though he remains unsigned, Crabtree is property of the Niners and is too talented to be any lower than the second rated prospect in the organization. Looking for money that rivals the top-three selections in the draft, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Crabtree is an explosive, physical receiver who has game changing ability. He has strong hands, makes tough catches in traffic and always looks to make a positive play. He plays with a great degree of suddenness and has the ability to stretch the field. He possesses outstanding body control and athleticism, and adjusts well to errant throws. He’s not a burner and has to work on his route running, but he has the complete package and can be an impact player immediately. But at this point, missing all of training camp and still not being signed with just one preseason game remaining, the clock is ticking on Crabtree. And while the front office remains confident he will sign before the season, the kind of impact he will have this year hangs in the balance.
When Crabtree does officially sign on the dotted line, another position that’s sorted out but doesn’t have a sense of security from a talent standpoint is at quarterback. But from the perspective of protection, the Niners third rated prospect, offensive tackle Joe Staley, has shown great versatility in his first two years in the league playing both right and left tackle. Staley enters his second season as the starting left tackle and was rewarded with a six-year contract extension during the offseason. The second of two first round picks in 2007 (Willis being the first), Staley has been a durable performer who has made 32 consecutive starts. The Niners would love to see more consistency out of Staley this season, since he gave up 8.5 sacks last year. The amount of sacks he surrendered last season can be attributed to not being comfortable with his new assignment, but with a year under his belt on the left side, Staley should be much improved. The fact that Staley is in the lineup every Sunday gives starting quarterback Shaun Hill a little more confidence knowing his blindside is protected by the Niners best lineman.
The best receiver on the Niners roster today may be 2008 sixth round pick Josh Morgan. At 6-foot, 219 pounds, the fourth rated prospect in the organization is a physical receiver who possesses good speed and outstanding hands. After a solid four-year career at Virginia Tech, Morgan ranks second in school history with 122 receptions, fourth with 1,817 receiving yards and fourth with 16 touchdowns. After a tremendous showing last year during the preseason, the Niners had high hopes for Morgan as a rookie. Morgan played in 12 games, starting one, but missed four games due to a groin injury. But in the games that he played, Morgan performed well and finished with 20 receptions for 319 yards and three touchdowns. This season, Morgan is penciled in as a starter opposite veteran Isaac Bruce. With Crabtree not in the mix as of yet, Morgan will receive every opportunity to solidify a spot in the starting lineup, and if he’s able to stay healthy, could be on the verge of a breakout year.
A player that solidified his spot in the starting lineup towards the end of last year was ’08 second round pick guard Chilo Rachal. A two-year starter at guard for USC, Rachal declared for the NFL Draft after his junior year because of family medical reasons. The decision to leave was understandable, and it worked out in Rachal’s favor, as he’s now playing professional football on the West Coast. Inactive during the first half last year, Rachal finished the year playing in eight games, starting six, and performed well. This season, Rachal is entrenched into the starting lineup and is expected to pick up where he left off last year and develop into a quality starter.Rounding out the top 10 is ’09 third round running back Glen Coffee at No. 6, cornerback Tarell Brown at No. 7, wide receiver Jason Hill at No. 8, ’09 fifth round quarterback Nate Davis at No. 9 and defensive end Kentwan Balmer at No. 10. Just missing the cut were safety Dashon Goldson, running back Kory Sheets and defensive back Reggie Smith.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.