Greatest 49ers Undrafted Free Agents
In many ways, the NFL draft epitomizes the American Dream. If a person works hard enough then eventually he will succeed. The NFL draft is an exhilarating time where much of the emphasis is placed on the seven rounds where players will be selected but the excitement does not end there. There are scores of draft-eligible players who are not drafted every year and they are waiting for the right team to call them after the draft them to sign them. These players are called undrafted free agents and there are always some real gems that emerge from this group every year. These players are rarely mentioned at length during the draft season but the second the draft ends they are analyzed just like the number one overall pick. The 49ers have gotten some excellent players this way via undrafted free agents. They fought through adversity to rise to the top of their profession and earned the respect of the 49ers faithful for their perseverance. Let’s take a look at the greatest undrafted free agents in 49ers history.
Jeff Garcia is a perfect example of living the American Dream to its’ fullest. He grew up in the Bay Area as a 49ers fan and dreamed of throwing touchdown passes to Jerry Rice. Despite an excellent college career and glowing reviews from 49ers coaching legend Bill Walsh, he was not drafted and spent the next five years polishing his skills in Canada. After winning the Grey Cup, the CFL’s championship, he was signed as a free agent by his hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers. At 6’2” 205 lbs., he did not fit the ideal measurables for an NFL quarterback but he was in the right organization which had a rich history of great quarterbacks. Little did he know how painful his journey would take him but the reward at the end was immeasurable.
His introduction to the NFL was a cruel awakening as he was thrown into the fire almost immediately when star quarterback Steve Young went down with a career-ending concussion early in the season. Despite throwing to two Hall of Fame wide receivers, Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, he struggled mightily and probably would have been released if he did not show improvement in his second season. After a disastrous first season, he improved dramatically the next three seasons and led the team to two playoff appearances. He was also invited to three Pro Bowls during this span of time. He showed heart and determination during the tough times and earned the respect of his teammates.
His heart and determination were on full display in the 2002 Wild Card Playoff game against the New York Giants. Down by 24 points in the middle of the third quarter, Garcia led a comeback for the ages. This was picturesque of his long, winding journey toward stardom. By facing down the long odds he proved the doubters wrong and led the 49ers to a stunning 39-38 victory. In a single game, he proved that the heart of a team is not always the player with the greatest expectations or the cleanest record. Many times that heart comes from the player with the most doubters and toughest journey. Jeff Garcia proved the doubters wrong and won over the fans. He is a great example of what an undrafted free agent should strive for in the NFL.
Joe “the Jet” Perry was signed by the 49ers two years before they even entered the NFL and his rise from obscurity perfectly mirrored the 49ers rise in the NFL during the 1950s. He played for the Navy after playing for Compton Junior College and it was mainly due to the unusual educational route that he was overlooked. The NFL was also just starting to become integrated and while integration in the NFL was not nearly as publicized about as baseball it was still an issue. The 49ers looked passed his collegiate past as well as his skin color and found something which they deeply admired which happened to be his uncommon speed. His 100-yard dash was 9.5 seconds which was only two-tenths of a second slower than the world record at that time. His speed catapulted his career to heights that never would have been reached if he had average speed.
Once the 49ers entered the NFL in 1950 he seized upon the opportunity to prove himself to the world. He became the first player in NFL history to run for over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons in 1953 and 1954. He was the beginning of the famed Million Dollar Backfield which also included Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, and John Henry Johnson. All four of these players are in the Hall of Fame but Perry was the one who got the momentum going on offense. He was briefly the leading rusher in NFL history but this record was broken by Jim Brown during Perry’s final season. He played an important role in 49ers history by getting the locals excited about their new team with his exciting brand of play. It is incredible to think that this man was so overlooked despite his immense talent.
He has only played one season but due to his rapid rise on the depth chart, he has earned a place on this list. He was undrafted in 2017 but that did not stop him from earning a spot as a second string for the season. This was after starting at seventh on the depth chart entering training camp. He was consistent throughout the season and showed a growing understanding of the profession. He racked up 465 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He also showed his receiving skills by catching 21 passes for 180 yards and a single touchdown. While these numbers are pedestrian to the naked eye, his story explains why these numbers are phenomenal and why his role will probably be even bigger in 2018 when he is the most experienced running back on the roster.
There are a plethora of reasons why Breida was overlooked in the NFL Draft. His school, Georgia Southern, is a small school in a small conference with little media attention. While his numbers dipped dramatically in his senior season he was impressive in his sophomore and junior campaigns where he rushed for a combined 3,094 yards and 34 touchdowns. He was impressive at the NFL Combine by recording a 4.39 40-yard dash time and added 23 reps on the bench. The athleticism was there yet teams kept overlooking him due to his lack of exposure on the national stage. Teams like players who played against the best in college because they have proven themselves time after time. Breida did not have that luxury and had to dominate his conference just to get a shot in the NFL. When the opportunity arrived he did not disappoint. He worked, fought, and ultimately earned the backup running back spot. No matter where his career goes, he has proven himself as a true professional and worthy of one day becoming a starter.
Each of these players were overlooked and had something to prove to themselves as well as the NFL. They played with a passion unknown to drafted players because they never knew when or if their opportunity would come. They fought for their football lives and won. They understood how hard it was to achieve their dream of playing in the NFL but never gave up and in the process they found themselves. They found the warrior within and realized that they could achieve anything in life if they worked hard enough. These were common men with a common dream who were willing to put in the necessary work to realize the uncommon reality. Each player epitomized the American Dream and in the process inspired generations of 49er Faithful with their perseverance and determination to achieve their dream of playing in the NFL. There is a lesson to be learned from this: never overlook the heart of an undrafted free agent.