The San Francisco 49ers’ rise to the top of the NFC has a familiar pattern.
Back in the 1990s, the St. Louis Rams endured a long stretch among the dregs of the NFL.
But after nine straight seasons of sub-.500 play and then selecting high in the first round of the draft, the Rams finally hit on enough premium picks to achieve an overnight turnaround that was nearly a decade in the making. They went from 4-12 in 1998 to a Super Bowl title in the ’99 season and a Super Bowl appearance two years later.
Similarly, in the eight seasons from 2003 through ’10, the 49ers went 46-82 and never finished above .500. With a string of high first-round selections, the 49ers made enough right choices, with a key free agent signing or two in the mix, to make a big jump. They went from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 and an appearance in the NFC championship last season, followed by this season’s run to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers appear poised for sustained success, though that in large part depends on how well second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick develops from his promising performance in the second half of this season. But top to bottom, they have possibly the most talented roster in the NFL, and that foundation was set by former general manager Scot McCloughan, the former Green Bay Packers scout who now is a high-ranking personnel executive for Seattle, and current GM Trent Baalke, who grew up in Wisconsin and graduated from Laconia High School.
McCloughan and Baalke built the 49ers mostly by landing star players with several of their highest picks from 2005 through ’10, when they picked in the top 11 of the draft every year but one.
McCloughan was GM from 2005 to 2010 and actually swung and missed on his best chance at a star player. The 49ers badly needed a quarterback in 2005 and had the first pick of the draft, but McCloughan, with input from the team’s offensive coordinator at the time, Mike McCarthy, chose Alex Smith instead of Aaron Rodgers. That decision set back the franchise at least a couple of years, if not longer.
But McCloughan drafted two of the team’s most important players in the next three years and added several other significant contributors to this year’s team. McCloughan acquired 14 of the 49ers’ current starters.
His two most important top-11 selections: With the No. 6 pick overall in 2005, he took Vernon Davis, who after three mediocre seasons developed into one of the NFL’s best big-play tight ends; and with the No. 11 pick in 2007, he took Patrick Willis, who is probably one of the two best inside linebackers in the NFL.
With two other top-11 selections, McCloughan drafted solid starters in receiver Michael Crabtree (No. 10 in 2009), who though not a difference-maker broke out for 85 receptions this season, and Anthony Davis (No. 11 in ’10), who has been a decent right tackle.
And with later first-round picks acquired via trades, McCloughan drafted two other 2012 Pro Bowlers: left tackle Joe Staley at No. 28 overall in ’07 and left guard Mike Iupati at No. 17 overall in ’10.
In later rounds, McCloughan’s three major hits were running back Frank Gore with the first pick of the third round in 2005, linebacker NaVorro Bowman with a third-rounder in ’10 and safety Dashon Goldson in the fourth round in ’07. Gore, at age 29, could descend at any time but has rushed for at least 1,100 yards in five seasons, including this year; Bowman might be the one inside linebacker in the league better than Willis; and Goldson was voted to his second straight Pro Bowl this season.
As important as any of McCloughan’s picks, though, was his signing of defensive lineman Justin Smith as an unrestricted free agent in 2008 for $45 million over six years. Smith has been every bit as good a signing as safety Charles Woodson was for Packers GM Ted Thompson in 2006 and is one of the 49ers’ two indispensable defensive players.
And McCloughan picked up one significant contributor, starting outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, as a waiver claim in ’08.
Then Baalke in his two seasons as GM has augmented the roster with two critical players.
He hit paydirt with his first 2011 first-round pick when he selected outside linebacker Aldon Smith at No. 7 overall. Smith is the 49ers’ other indispensable defensive player, and his 33 1/2 sacks is the most in a player’s first two seasons in NFL history, ahead of Reggie White’s 31 and Von Miller’s 30.
Baalke also traded up in the second round in ’11 to select coach Jim Harbaugh’s hand-picked choice for franchise quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.
Though Justin Smith was the critical free agent signing, Baalke also has used free agency to improve his roster more than, say, the draft-and-develop purist Thompson has with the Packers. Baalke signed two starters as mid-level type free agents, cornerback Carlos Rogers (a one-year, $4 million deal in ’11 followed by a four-year, $31 million deal last offseason) and safety Donte Whitner (three-year, $11.5 million deal in ’11).
The 49ers at least have the makings for a run at several trips to the Super Bowl after having eight players voted to this year’s Pro Bowl, including three who are 25 or younger: Aldon Smith (23), Bowman (24) and Iupati (25).
But a couple of factors could derail a sustained run at the top.
Most important is whether Kaepernick becomes a premier passer as defenses catch up with the read-option run game over the next few years. If he’s a top-echelon quarterback, that alone will make them an upper-tier team.
Another is whether Justin Smith declines quickly, which is likely. He will need offseason surgery on his torn triceps and turns 34 next September. Without him for 2 1/4 games at the end of the regular season, the 49ers’ defense wasn’t the same, and even if he’s diminished it will make a noticeable difference. Replacing him will take great skill and some luck.
Then there’s attrition to age and free agency. Bowman (through 2019) has signed a contract extension, but Aldon Smith and Iupati are on their rookie contracts and will command big money.
Willis also is under contract through 2019 but at age 28 probably has hit his peak. Goldson, also 28 and at a speed position, is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Vernon Davis is 29 and plays a speed position.
Yes, the future looks bright for the 49ers. But as the Packers can attest from the past couple years, bright futures don’t necessarily mean championships. What matters is now.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter@PeteDougherty.