Skip to main content

The 49ers have had an illustrious history in the NFL Draft. From drafting Leo Nomellini to obtaining the great Jerry Rice, they have proven time and again that their standard of drafting the right player is golden.

The 49ers were loaded with talent in the 1950s when the draft was just starting to develop into the system it is today. However, much of the talent they acquired was pure luck as they did not have a method to their draft process.

It was not until Bill Walsh arrived that the 49ers made the draft into a science. They were able to find the right players for their system and with those players were able to create a dynasty. Let’s take a look at the greatest 49ers draft classes of all time.


This draft was not incredibly deep but it brought a franchise player who led the team into a new era as a newly minted member of the NFL. That player was Leo Nomellini and he proved to be a force on both the offensive and defensive lines.

This was an era when players typically played both ways and Nomellini was one of the best to do so. In fact, he was selected All-Pro at both offensive tackle and defensive tackle. He set the tone for all of the players the 49ers acquired until his retirement in 1963.

While the 49ers never won a championship while he was playing, this draft pick proved vital for the glory years of the mid-1950s.


Up until this point in team history, the 49ers had simply gotten lucky whenever they selected an impact player in the draft. This lack of direction changed when Bill Walsh was hired as their head coach.

The draft suddenly became a science and players were not seemingly picked out of a hat. There was a purpose for drafting Joe Montana in the third round and why they chose not to wait for after the draft to sign Dwight Clark as an undrafted free agent. They instead drafted him in the tenth round, a round which does not even exist these days.

Together, these two combined on the greatest play in 49ers history by connecting on “The Catch”. This play sent the 49ers to their first Super Bowl and started their dynasty of the 1980s. While there were not many impact players selected in this draft, this year proved to be a tone setter as the 49ers finally had a plan.


Since Bill Walsh took over. the 49ers had improved on offense but were dreadful on defense. They were missing talent in the defensive backfield and free agency did not yet exist so the draft was their only chance at filling those holes. They needed to find the right players to build their defense around.

Ronnie Lott (USC), Eric Wright (Missouri) and Carlton Williamson (Pittsburgh) were drafted to lead a change on defense. For years prior, the 49ers defense would fight hard at the beginning of the game but towards the end, they would crumble because they did not believe they could win. By drafting these three players the 49ers not only acquired better talent but also a boost of energy.

At the time USC, Pittsburgh and Missouri were championship-caliber programs whose players had the confidence they needed to compete for national championships. The 49ers desperately needed that confidence and selected these players for that very reason.

The fact that Ronnie Lott became a Hall of Fame player is just the icing on the cake.  Having this new energy combined with the talents of Dwight Hicks, this band of youngsters wreaked havoc on the NFL in 1981 and helped the 49ers win their first Super Bowl. NFL history would have been very different if even one of these individuals had not been drafted by the 49ers.


This draft has often been listed as one of the greatest drafts in NFL history and looking at the talent it is hard to argue against that theory.

Bill Walsh further proved his genius by selecting Larry Roberts, Tom Rathman, Tim McKyer, John Taylor, Charles Haley, Steve Wallace, Kevin Fagan, and Don Griffin.

These players represented the 49ers in six Pro Bowls and proved to be the nucleus of the teams that won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1988 and 1989. While only Charles Haley is in the Hall of Fame, these players proved to be vital for the organization when it mattered most. This was a time when the 49ers were considered the deepest team in the NFL and this draft is a huge reason why.


They started off strong in selecting linebacker Patrick Willis and offensive tackle Joe Staley in the first round but they also selected a number of other impact players including end Ray McDonald and safety Dashon Goldson.

These players combined for an absurd 15 Pro Bowls and proved to be the nucleus of the 49ers resurgence in the Jim Harbaugh era. Only time will tell how many of these players are selected to the Hall of Fame but their impact on the field, not their individual accomplishments, are what have defined their careers. Willis led the defense until his retirement in 2015 and proved his status as a first-round selection.

Staley is still leading the offensive line and is still searching for that elusive Super Bowl title.

McDonald’s career was cut short due to a domestic violence dispute in 2014 and while he was never selected to a Pro Bowl, he was a terrific pass rusher when it counted most.

Goldson was a force in the secondary and really set the tone for games with his violent collisions. These players set the standard for the 49ers to follow with their work ethic and drive to become a champion. This is a mentality that 49er players carry to this very day.

Final Thoughts:

Part of what makes the draft so much fun is because you never know what your team is going to get. Some years the team might get a lot of talent, such as the 1986 draft. Other years the team may get next to no talent, such as the 2012 draft. It truly depends on the player and the organization. The 49ers continuously found the right pieces in the draft in the 1980s because the environment was just right for the players they selected. These players were able to blossom into impact players. Will 2018 bring about the next great draft class for the 49ers? Only time will tell.

David Hegler

Author David Hegler

BS in Business Management from Azusa Pacific University. Fanatical 49er fan. Avid fan of all Bay Area sports teams.

More posts by David Hegler

Join The Discussion!