Historically speaking, this is the time of year when the San Francisco 49ers make the decisions that alter their franchise forever.
Rather than go “all in” and prefer to spend money on building their roster via free agency, the 49ers have traditionally pivoted more to the NFL Draft to place the building blocks of their future.
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Think about it: Joe Montana was a third round draft pick at No. 82 overall in 1979. Jerry Rice came via the draft at No. 16 overall in 1985. John Taylor arrived to the Bay Area at the same spot Montana was taken when the receiver entered the league in 1986. Years later, Frank Gore fell to the third round in 2005 and so did Navarro Bowman in 2010.
Now, for this decade, Bleacher Report’s Ian Wharton recognized on April 7 the “10 biggest draft steals of the past decade,” and two 49ers cracked the top 10.
They are: 2017 fifth rounder George Kittle at No. 10 and 2018 third rounder Fred Warner at No. 9.
‘Unguardable’ Describes Kittle
How did a future perennial All-Pro and one of the league faces at the tight end position fall to No. 146 overall?
Kittle was described by nfl.com’s Lance Zierlein as an “average backup or special teamer” in his ’17 evaluation. Kittle’s said weaknesses at the time were “patterns are inconsistent” and “Could generate better separation with improved route leverage.”
Zierlein did mention, though, that Kittle “has good hands and flashes an ability to challenge as a pass catcher on all three levels. Kittle has the athleticism and blocking ability to become an effective move tight end if paired in the right system.”
Guess what? He’s found the right system with Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers. Here’s what Wharton wrote:
“There are so few tight ends who have proved to be reliably unguardable that it may be the position with the largest gap between the good starters and average starters. George Kittle has been a major part of the position’s development since being drafted in the fifth round in 2017. The athletic 6’4″, 250-pounder has only been slowed by injuries since his rookie season.
Kittle’s ability to create after the catch is especially notable for a big man. In 2021, Kittle ranked second among tight ends in yards after catch (YAC) despite missing three games. His presence forces defenses to react to his alignment, and defenders must follow his movements thanks to San Francisco’s desire to feed him targets.”
Wharton adds that Kittle’s emergence helped lead to teams placing tight ends near the top of their draft board.
Warner Called a ‘Standard’ For New School Linebackers
How did Warner fall to No. 70?
Warner was called a “good backup with the potential to develop into a starter” by Zierlein. But his future NFL success was going to be by how an NFL team uses him as Zierlein wrote. And two flaws that were pointed out: “Tackle consistency may be a concern on next level” and “unclear what his best positional fit is.”
Well, his best fit has been with the 49ers — earning an All-Pro nod in 2020 and collecting 504 tackles and 22 stops behind the line of scrimmage in his first four seasons per Pro Football Reference. Here’s what Wharton used to describe Warner’s impact:
“The 25-year-old is one of the standards for new-school linebackers. Warner is as comfortable turning his back on the quarterback in coverage as he is running downhill into the trenches. His confidence and consistency unlocked more possibilities for his defensive coordinators than what the vast majority of teams can afford to try.”
The 49ers have kept their philosophy of building through the draft and in the process, discovered two steals who have guided the franchise to an NFC title and NFC championship game appearance in a span of three seasons.