The current NFL is set up to ensure that franchises don’t pull off that which the San Francisco 49ers accomplished from 1981 through 1994. San Francisco, during that stretch, won the Super Bowl five different times. They won 11 division championships.
One could argue that the 49ers were, at the time, the best franchise in all of North American professional sports.
It’s often pointed out, whenever discussing San Fran and prior NFL Drafts, that the club found Joe Montana, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, in the third round. While that is true, the Niners have also done well to locate and select Hall-of-Famers in first rounds, beginning with the first pick made in the history of the franchise.
Here are the top 10 first-round picks in San Francisco 49ers history.
10. Dana Stubblefield — DT — 26th Overall in 1993
Every NFL team hopes to land a Rookie of the Year in each of their drafts. The 49ers found just that in 1993. Stubblefield had 10.5 sacks in his first season in the league, and he added an AP Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1997 to his ROTY honors. San Francisco seemingly had the cornerstone of what could have been a championship defense.
It wasn’t to be. Stubblefield joined the Washington Redskins after the ’97 season, and he never again played as well as he did in San Fran. The three-time Pro Bowl selection was then charged in the infamous BALCO investigation. He ultimately received probation after admitting to lying to federal agents.
9. Ken Willard — RB — 2nd Overall in 1965
Willard was a solid running back in seven of his nine years with San Francisco. He made four Pro Bowls from 1965 through 1969. Willard was second in rushing yards in 1968, and he was fourth in rushing touchdowns in that same season.
Through no fault of his own, Willard will be remembered for being a “what could have been” draft pick. The Niners passed on Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and Joe Namath to take Willard. All three of those players would go on to have Hall-of-Fame careers.
8. Vernon Davis — TE — 6th Overall in 2006
It took a few years, but Davis has become one of the top producing tight ends in all of the NFL. He led the league in receiving touchdowns with 13, and his production for that season resulted in his receiving a first Pro Bowl invite. Davis matched that exact touchdown output in 2013, when he was once again named to the Pro Bowl.
Davis, who has missed only three regular season starts since 2007, has a total of 397 catches, 5,201 receiving yards and 53 receiving touchdowns in his eight years in the league. Fans can invest in Davis in more ways than just buying his jersey or taking him in a fantasy football draft.
Perhaps you would be interested in the Vernon Davis stock?
7. Charlie Krueger — DT/DE — 9th Overall in 1958
Krueger would remain a member of the 49ers up through the completion of his NFL career in 1973. A mainstay of the team’s defensive line, Krueger started in 178 games for the club. He notched one safety per season every year from 1959 through 1961, and he was a Pro-Bowler in 1960 and 1964.
Krueger is not just known for his accomplishments. He sacrificed his body, specifically his left femur and tibia, to the 49ers. It was eventually proven that the team did not do right by Krueger, and he won a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the Niners in 1988.
6. Hugh McElhenny — RB — 9th Overall in 1952
McElhenny wore several different hats in his NFL career. He carried the rock from out of the backfield. He was a receiving target for his quarterbacks. McElhenny had a handful of passes, and he also returned kicks.
McElhenny twice had the longest rush from scrimmage in a season (1952 and 1956). He led the NFL in all-purpose yards in his first season in the league. In total, McElhenny was responsible for 52 total touchdowns in his nine years spent with the 49ers, and his day in Canton came in 1970.
5. John Brodie — QB — 3rd Overall in 1957
Brodie had to wait four seasons until he was the lone starting quarterback in San Francisco. Patience was a virtue for the QB. He led the NFL in passing yards, passes completed and passing touchdowns in 1965. Brodie would get a Pro Bowl nod for his play that season.
His best pro year came in 1970. He once again led the NFL in passing yards, completions and passing touchdowns, and Brodie also had the league’s highest passer rating for that season. His play in ’70 earned him first-team All-Pro honors and the league MVP Award. Brodie is a member of the 49ers Hall of Fame.
4. Jimmy Johnson — DB — 6th Overall in 1961
Johnson played on offense and on defense during his college days at UCLA. He would dabble in both roles upon joining the 49ers, but it was his play in the secondary that got him recognized as one of the best players to never make it to a Super Bowl.
Johnson was a member of the San Francisco secondary for 16 seasons. Known as a tremendous athlete, the 6-foot-2 Johnson had the size and athleticism to star at cornerback in the modern day NFL. The four-time first-team All-Pro was a member of the 1994 Hall of Fame class.
3. Leo Nomellini — DT/T — 11th Overall in 1950
Nomellini was a historic player from day one of his NFL career in that he was the first man to be drafted by the 49ers after the club joined the league. He more than earned that distinction. From 1950 through 1962, Nomellini missed one – ONE – regular season start. He featured on both sides of the football, earning honors for his play on offense and on defense.
The ten-time Pro-Bowler was named a first-team All-Pro on six occasions. Both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Reference list him in their All-1950 Teams. Nomellini, a product of Lucca, Italy, was enshrined in Canton in 1969.
2. Ronnie Lott — DB — 8th Overall in 1981
Lott will forever go down as one of the most versatile defensive backs in the history of the NFL. He possessed the speed and athleticism to feature and star at cornerback. Lott was also a physical safety.
Regardless of where he played, Lott was a ball-hawk. He led the NFL in interceptions in 1986 and 1991. Lott remains seventh all-time in career picks with 63.
A six-time first-team All-Pro, Lott was named to ten Pro Bowl squads from 1981 through 1991. He is a member of multiple All-1980s and All-1990s Teams, and his being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000 was a no-brainer.
1. Jerry Rice — WR — 16th Overall in 1985
Odds are that you accidentally clicked the wrong link, or that you got lost on the Internet if you landed here and don’t understand how this Rice guy is No. 1 on the list. One of the first things that comes to the minds of knowledgeable football fans and analysts upon hearing or reading Rice’s name is the phrase “Greatest of All Time.”
It’s easy to make exaggerations when speaking or writing about sport, but referring to Rice as the best to ever play the WR position is not an example of that.
Rice’s career resume is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous. He was a 13-time Pro-Bowl wideout, and Rice was a first-team All-Pro ten different times. He is first all-time in career receptions, in career receiving yards, and in career receiving touchdowns. Rice was a rare breed, the type of player who should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame the second he officially retired.