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What the last 50 years say about 49ers’ chances of success with 13th overall pick

Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

For the third time in franchise history, the San Francisco 49ers will have the 13th overall pick in the NFL Draft, assuming they don’t trade it. The previous two occasions saw the organization draft fullback Earl Cooper in 1980 out of Rice University — Cooper later transitioned to tight end and helped the 49ers to their first and second Super Bowls, catching Joe Montana and the 49ers’ first-ever touchdown in a Super Bowl — and safety George Donnelly in 1965 out of Illinois. Donnelly was what we’d call a bust nowadays, playing just three seasons, and starting in 19 of his 33 total games.

But the history of the 13th overall pick bodes well for the 49ers, in most cases. The one exception to that rule is wide receiver, though being that wide receiver has often been viewed as one of the trickiest positions to scout adequately, it might be more of a reflection of the position than the slot.

The most popular position selected at No. 13 is defensive tackle (nine), followed by wide receiver (seven), offensive tackle (seven) and linebacker (seven). Eric Metcalf is the lone FLEX option here because he played both as a running back and wide receiver, and was also an elite return man. Traditional linebackers like Takeo Spikes were separated from 3-4 outside linebackers who were effectively EDGE players, like Brian Orakpo.

All graphics by Jake Hutchinson, numbers via draft history and Pro Football Reference.

Here are the raw numbers:

If you’re thinking, hey, the 49ers are in the market for a defensive tackle and wide receiver (and maybe a corner, or even a tackle, if Joe Staley suddenly decides to retire) and wondering how successful those picks have been, here’s a position-by-position look.

For defensive tackle, two players are left out: Daron Payne of the Redskins (2018) and Christian Wilkins of the Miami Dolphins (2019). It’s clearly too early to give an assessment of their careers. That leaves seven defensive tackles: Aaron Donald, Sheldon Richardson, Adam Carriker, Marcus Stroud, Nick Fairley, Keith Millard, Troy Archer.

Everyone has a subjective interpretation of success. The higher the pick, the higher the inherent expectations. Fairley had a solid start to his career before tailing off, and then later striking gold with a 6.5-sack season in New Orleans before a heart condition forced him to retire. The Vikings’ Keith Millard was maybe the most fearsome defensive tackle in the league, with back-to-back First Team All-Pro selections in 1988 (8.0 sacks) and 1989 (18.0 sacks) before a knee injury in 1990 effectively ended his career.

But you can’t punish a team for unpredictable freak injuries (if they enter the league with chronic conditions, like Da’Quan Bowers of Clemson did in 2011, that’s on the team).

That’s why when reviewing these players and putting them into seven categories for career performance, they are not punished for freak injuries. Hence, why Millard is deemed elite, and Fairley is deemed a fringe star.

The categories are as follows:

Legend (6 players): Either Hall of Fame caliber, or debatably Hall of Fame with continued excellence over a sustained period

  • Includes: Aaron Donald, Tony Gonzalez, Franco Harris, John Abraham, Kellen Winslow Sr., Mike Kenn

Elite (10 players): Not quite Hall of Fame level, but unquestioned stars during their peaks, which were consistent and sustained for at least four seasons. All-Pro nods valued above Pro Bowl nods.

  • Includes: Keith Jackson, Keith Millard, Brian Orakpo, Laremy Tunsil, Takeo Spikes, Jammal Brown, Brad Hopkins, Eric Metcalf, Marcus Stroud, Joe Johnson

Fringe star (13 players): Could be argued as elite, at least at time during career, but doesn’t have the sustained, consistent performance to fall in that category. Or, does have sustained performance, but wasn’t quite at an elite level.

  • Includes: Andrus Peat, Sheldon Richardson, Michael Floyd, Nick Fairley, Brandon Graham, Jonathan Stewart, Kamerion Wimbley, Lee Evans, Walt Harris, Mark Fields, Eddie Brown, A.J. Duhe, Burgess Owens

Above average (5 players): Were not considered poor players, and displayed seasons or moments that showed potential. Didn’t prove they were star caliber or close to it, but stood out from the middle/back end of the roster.

  • Includes: Ty Warren, Donte’ Stallworth, Chris Miller, James Jones, Earl Cooper

Average (1 player): Truly nothing special. Didn’t stand out, weren’t abysmal.

  • Includes: Mike Pritchard

Below average (2 players): Could have been replaced, and eventually were. Likely would have been sooner if not for draft slot.

  • Includes: Lynn Boden, Rick Middleton

Bust (9 players): Complete failure, no capability as a professional football player.

  • Includes: Adam Carriker, Troy Edwards, Eugune Chung, Percy Snow, James FitzPatrick, Lindsay Scott, Troy Archer, Leon Burns, Jim Files

Here’s what that looks like visualized. Of the 46 players included above (three most recent not included, nor is David Overstreet, who perished in a car accident in his rookie year), 63 percent were at least borderline stars, and another nearly 11 percent were above average. Only about 24 percent of players were truly disappointing.

Extrapolating that to wide receiver and defensive tackles though, the data is a bit different. No wide receiver selected at No. 13 has fallen into the elite category, with the exception of Eric Metcalf, whose best receiving season was with 104 catches for 1,189 yards and 8 TD in 1995. Before that season, he was used as a running back much more frequently.

Here’s a video of Metcalf (the uncle of D.K. Metcalf) that’s worth watching. The man had wheels. He was Devin Hester before there was a Devin Hester, but actually a skilled running back and wide receiver.

As for the rest of those receivers, none reached those sort of heights, nor were they anywhere near as gifted returners. Michael Floyd, Lee Evans and Eddie Brown were probably the three best receivers in the group.

Before a DUI effectively ended his NFL career, Floyd had three-straight receiving season of at least 841 yards and 5 TD. In seven games with the Cardinals in his fifth season, he had 446 yards with 4 TD, on pace to potentially set career-highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns, before his arrest.

Evans probably had the best stretch out of any of these receivers, with at least one bona fide elite season in 2006, when he caught 82 passes for 1,292 yards and 8 TD. He couldn’t maintain those numbers though, and after his second 1,000-plus-yard receiving season came two years later, his numbers tailed off.

That single season was closely rivaled by Brown, who had 53 catches for 1,273 yards and 8 TD, making his lone Pro Bowl in 1988.

There were also busts in Lindsay Scott and Troy Edwards, who caught for a combined 12 touchdowns in their careers, as well as underwhelming careers in Stallworth and Pritchard.

This is by no means to say the 49ers can’t find a star wide receiver at No. 13, just that no team has found one there, as of yet. There have also been two bona fide busts at defensive tackle at No. 13 in Carriker and Archer, but the success rate appears to be higher.

This is not to suggest that the 49ers should avoid drafting a wide receiver at No. 13 because defensive tackles have historically been more successful. There are two currently in the league whose careers are too young to judge, and they may well skew the numbers in favor of wide receivers if their careers go sideways. There have been two bona fide busts defensive tackles and two bona fide bust wide receivers.

And the 49ers could go for an offensive tackle or corner at that spot, too. The main data worth taking from this is that it is a popular spot to select defensive tackles and wide receivers because front offices frequently see value there, and more importantly, that there’s about a 70 percent chance you get an arguably star-caliber player at the 13th overall pick.


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