Homegrown or imported, 49ers are loaded with blue-chip talent
NEW ORLEANS -- The Cain and Abel coaching subplot in this year's Super Bowl is undeniably the most irresistible in NFL history, but it's still the playing talent that decides championships in football, and that's where the San Francisco 49ers have almost an embarrassment of riches.
Start counting up the first-round draft choices on the roster and you're going to need three hands. San Francisco boasts an astounding 15 players who were deemed blue-chip and selected in the league's opening round. And there's even a fascinating subset within those numbers. Nine of those first-round 49ers are homegrown, but six were imports from other organizations.
That list features receiver Randy Moss (1998, Minnesota), defensive end Justin Smith (2001, Cincinnati), guard Leonard Davis (2001, Buffalo) cornerback Carlos Rogers (2005, Washington), safety Donte Whitner (2006, Buffalo) and receiver-return man Ted Ginn Jr. (2007, Miami). Clearly San Francisco can see value in another team's refuse.
But the sheer volume of highly-drafted talent in San Francisco jumps out at you at this Super Bowl. All told, nine of the 49ers' first-rounders went in the top 10, and 11 of the 15 players were chosen in their draft's first 11 selections. There's quarterback Alex Smith (first overall in 2005), receiver Michael Crabtree (10th in 2009), tight end Vernon Davis (6th in 2006), linebacker Aldon Smith (7th in 2011), inside linebacker Patrick Willis (11th in 2007) and offensive tackle Anthony Davis (11th in 2010). Those were all San Francisco selections.
And when you add in top 10 picks like Ginn (9th in 2007), Rogers (9th in 2005), Justin Smith (4th in 2001), Leonard Davis (2nd in 2001) and Whitner (8th in 2006), the 49ers roster reads like a recent who's who of the NFL Draft.
"It's ridiculous,'' 12th-year veteran Justin Smith said this week, when asked about San Francisco's talent level. "You look around our locker room, from head to toe, offensive line, receivers, defensive backs, linebackers, it's the main reason we're here. Our talent level, with what the coaches have been able to get out of us, it's just all come together. This roster is loaded.
"There's a ton of first-rounders. Just on offensive line I think there's three or four first-rounders. That doesn't happen very often, and I think that's a big reason why we're at where we're at.''
The 49ers offensive line does indeed feature four first-round picks: Left tackle Joe Staley (28th in 2007), right tackle Anthony Davis, left guard Mike Iupati (17th in 2010), and reserve guard Leonard Davis, who was taken second overall by the Cardinals in 2001, behind only Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick.
San Francisco's roster is so first-round heavy, I suppose it only makes sense the 49ers are led by head coach Jim Harbaugh, himself a former first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 1987 (26th overall). Harbaugh has only been in San Francisco for two seasons, overseeing the selection of first-rounders Aldon Smith in 2011 and receiver A.J. Jenkins (30th overall) in 2012, but during that span the 49ers have also acquired Whitner, Rogers, Moss and Leonard Davis as free agents.
By comparison, San Francisco's Super Bowl opponent, Baltimore, has roughly half the first-round pedigree of the 49ers, at least in terms of sheer numbers. To be sure, there's quality in Ravens-land. There are some future Hall of Famers on Baltimore's list, but all told there are eight Ravens who were selected in the first round. Just two went in the top 10 (outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, 10th in 2003, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie, 7th by Minnesota in 2002).
Baltimore has been a perennial winner for so long its draft slot is usually somewhere in the mid-to-low 20s, and that's where the likes of inside linebacker Ray Lewis (26th in 1996), safety Ed Reed (24th in 2002), right tackle Michael Oher (23rd in 2009) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (27th in 2011) came off the board. The Ravens also took quarterback Joe Flacco 18th overall in 2008, and standout defensive tackle Haloti Ngata 12th in 2006.
But as Justin Smith expressed, it's not difficult to see why San Francisco has taken big leaps and bounds up the NFL's power structure in the Harbaugh era; the combination of superb coaching and first-rate talent is tough to beat. But I don't think there was a 49ers player I talked to for this story who wasn't a bit surprised to hear just how many first-round picks were actually on the San Francisco roster.
"Man, you know what, you just gave me chills. I didn't even realize that,'' said Willis, when he was asked if he knew he was one of 15 first-round 49ers. "A few weeks back, Coach Harbaugh got our high school recruiting photos somehow, and put them up, and it was crazy just to see it. Some guys were three-stars, some guys were no stars, and Randy (Moss) was a five-star. You looked around and realized that we have one thing in common: And that's we're all here. We all made it here.''
Deserving much of the credit for the 49ers' talent haul is general manager Trent Baalke, who until January 2011 was the team's VP/director of player personnel from 2008-2010, heading up its college scouting operations. Before that, Baalke served as a scout for the 49ers from 2005-2007. The mix of homegrown players and veteran free agent additions has been wildly successful in the Baalke GM era.
"When you look at the people we've brought in through the draft, and how we've built that way, with the free agents we've also added, it's a great mix,'' Staley said. "It's exciting to see that everyone's excited to come to San Francisco and be a part of what we're doing here. That hasn't always been the case here.
"We do a great job identifying those great players, and great character guys that fit into our locker room. You obviously want to have amazing talented players, but a person can have all the talent in the world but be an a*****e. And then you have a lot of problems. We have talented players, but also the right kind of talented players.''
Whitner, Rogers and Ginn have found successful second homes in the NFL in San Francisco, after being deemed replaceable by the teams that invested top-10 picks in them. Moss came out of retirement and his three-team debacle of 2010 to play a useful, albeit limited, role with the 49ers. All have been pieces to the winning puzzle in San Francisco.
"You have to give all the credit to the people upstairs [in the front office and on the coaching staff], bringing all those guys here, like myself, Carlos, Moss and Ginn,'' Whitner said. "Obviously somebody did some homework. This is the most talented team I've ever been on.''
Like Whitner in Buffalo, and Ginn in Miami, Rogers experienced very little team success in Washington, spending the first six seasons of his NFL career in a mostly losing environment. But his arrival in San Francisco in 2011 coincided with Harbaugh's hiring and a new era of 49ers dominance.
"The atmosphere is different in San Francisco, totally different,'' Rogers said. "It starts at the top and leads all the way down to the last guy on the roster. If you've been to Washington, you know the difference. Just two teams headed in two different directions. Here we're all clicking and all have one goal. We all came from other teams and see the downside of other teams. So we can all relate to that same experience. These guys here are all hungry. They had been winning only five, six, seven games a year and then when the season ends, they pack their bags and go home. But all that's changed.''
The added veteran talent in the past two or three years, Willis said, has made the 49ers a more well-rounded and resilient team. Those players, combined with San Francisco's blend of top-level youth, has made the 49ers roster quite possibly the envy of the NFL.
"Those guys have helped, big time,'' Willis said. "They've added additional elements to our team and our defense that help make us the team and the defense we are today. I just pray we can go out there and showcase that on Sunday.''
The 49ers may have already won the talent battle with the Ravens, and if they win the game on Sunday, San Francisco will again be the capital of the football world. All those first-rounders will have paved the way to a first-place finish.