The San Francisco 49ers used to be one of the most iconic franchise of the National Football League. The 49ers are only one of three franchises to have five or more Super Bowl victories. Four of San Francisco’s five championships came during the 1980s when the team was filled with a number of legends on both offense and defense.
Quarterback Joe Montana was viewed as one of the best with four Super Bowl rings, a record that might soon be broken by Tom Brady at Super Bowl LI. Montana had a number of weapons, like running back Roger Craig and wide receiver Jerry Rice, as he handed off the reigns to Steve Young, who would win Super Bowl XXIX in 1994. That was the last time San Francisco won a championship.
In fact, they’ve only been to one Super Bowl since that season – a 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at Super Bowl XLVII. The once proud franchise has since gone through a few ups and a lot more downs. Long gone are the days they are seen deep in the NFC playoff rounds. More often than not, they’re finding themselves selecting from the top-10 in the NFL Draft – usually a sign of a franchise unable to escape mediocrity.
Since 2000, there have been good players and bad ones as the team has gone through a number of rebuilds. The following is a look at eight of the best players for the San Francisco 49ers since and seven of the worst since the 2000 season.
15 Best – Takeo Spikes, LB
Takeo Spikes only played three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers near the end of his career but he was still one of the best linebackers the franchise had ever had on its roster since 2000. Spikes was the 13th overall selection by Cincinnati in the 1998 NFL Draft. During those first five years with the Bengals, Spikes had 447 tackles and 14.5 sacks. He had some injuries during the next five years between Buffalo and Philadelphia.
14 Worst – Alex Smith, QB
This might come as a bit of a surprise for some who feel Alex Smith has played well recently. That’s because he found himself in the right system under coach Andy Reid with the Kansas City Chiefs. But his time with the San Francisco 49ers was mostly filled with frustrations and unmet expectations. That’s what happens when a quarterback is selected first overall in the NFL Draft. In his rookie year in 2005, Smith played in nine games in which he had just one touchdown compared to 11 interceptions.
13 Best – Patrick Willis, LB
During the later 2000s, the San Francisco 49ers were slowly becoming a team that could compete for a championship. In the 2007 NFL Draft, the 49ers found middle linebacker Patrick Willis out of Ole Miss. He made an immediate impact for the defense with a rookie season that saw 135 tackles with four sacks. Willis also had his first career interception in the 2008 season, after which he returned 86 yards for a touchdown.
12 Worst – Colin Kaepernick, QB
There was once a time when Colin Kaepernick looked like he could have been the next big star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. After acting as a backup with limited time in 2011, the former Nevada quarterback got a chance in the middle of the 2012 season. With a 5-2 run, he helped the 49ers get to the Super Bowl. It looked like he was en route to great things with 3,000-yard seasons in 2013 and 2014.
11 Best – Jeff Garcia, QB
While Jeff Garcia isn’t going to stand out as one of the greatest San Francisco quarterbacks in team history, he was still better than a lot of the signal callers since 2000. After a tough rookie season in 1999, Garcia would complete his first full season as a starter with 4,278 yards and 31 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions in the 2000 season. He would follow that up with two winning seasons in 2001 and 2002.
10 Worst – Antonio Bryant, WR
Before joining the San Francisco 49ers, Antonio Bryant was a talented young receiver with the Dallas Cowboys. But after his second year with the Cowboys in 2003, there was a negative reputation that surrounded the player. Throwing a jersey at a head coach usually does that. He was then traded to Cleveland and spent a full season in 2005 before signing a four-year, $14 million contract with the 49ers before the 2006 season.
9 Best – Terrell Owens, WR
Whether you love his not-so-subtle confidence or hate it, it is hard to argue that Terrell Owens was one of the best wide receivers in the last 20 years. He was a third-round choice in the 1996 NFL Draft by the 49ers after spending his college years in the small program at Tennessee-Chattanooga. Through the late 1990s, he slowly developed into a number one receiver, but his numbers skyrocketed in the 2000 season with 1,451 yards and 13 touchdowns.
8 Worst – Jimmie Ward, DB
This might seem like a tough one considering he just finished his third season in the NFL. But there’s a lot of expectations whenever a team selects a player in the first round. While 30th overall, Jimmie Ward was chosen by the San Francisco 49ers as their first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. They saw something from his college career at Northern Illinois University. It certainly didn’t show in the eight games he played his rookie season – only two pass deflections and 19 tackles.
7 Best – Joe Staley, OT
It’s hard to put into context what kind of impact an offensive lineman makes in terms of statistics. They don’t have the measurable figures that quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers do. Offensive linemen don’t get the tackles, sacks and other stat lines their opponents on defense have. But a good offensive lineman’s work can be seen in how the running game works and how the quarterback is protected.
6 Worst – Rashaun Woods, WR
Similar to the case of Jimmie Ward, Rashaun Woods had a lot of expectations after he was chosen 31st overall by the 49ers in the 2004 NFL Draft’s first round. Through four years with Oklahoma State University, Woods had 4,414 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns. He had a lot of attention going into the draft and he had his chance with a developing franchise. Unfortunately, the experiment lasted only one season.
5 Best – Justin Smith, DE
The Cincinnati Bengals certainly saw a reason to select defensive end Justin Smith with the fourth overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft. The former Missouri Tiger would spend seven seasons of his NFL career as a highlight of the Bengals defense with 43.5 sacks, more than 300 tackles and two interceptions. The San Francisco 49ers looked at Smith as someone who could help make them a contender as they signed him before the 2008 season.
4 Worst – Ken Dorsey, QB
It’s not like the bar was set extremely high for Ken Dorsey when he joined the San Francisco 49ers. He was a seventh-round selection in the 2003 NFL Draft after a good college career with Miami (Florida). He earned his shot during the 2004 season where he completed only 54.4 percent of his passes for 1,231 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions; four of which were thrown in a 38-20 loss to the Washington Redskins.
3 Best – Frank Gore, RB
One of the most difficult positions to be consistently productive in is at running back. Frank Gore was one of the few who was counted on by the 49ers to put up big numbers for 10 seasons in San Francisco. After being drafted in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, Gore would work his way up to earning his starts. A 72-yard touchdown run in his rookie season would help make him the starter in 2006, when he put up 1,695 yards and eight touchdowns.
2 Worst – J.T. O’Sullivan, QB
The only reason head coach Mike Nolan decided to give the starting quarterback job to J.T. O’Sullivan in 2008 was due to Alex Smith suffering a broken shoulder. Before the 2008 season, O’Sullivan had a career 148 passing yards between a season in Green Bay and one in Detroit. This would turn out to be Nolan’s undoing, as O’Sullivan would go 2-6 as a starter with a completion percentage of 58.2 in nine games.
1 Best – Jerry Rice, WR
Sure, he played just one season during this millennium with the San Francisco 49ers. But in that one season, Rice outperformed many of the terrible wide receivers that have plagued the team in the last decade and a half. Rice played with San Francisco after being drafted in 1985 and became one of the best receivers in franchise history. In 2000, he played his final year with the 49ers at the age of 38.
While not reaching the 1,848 yards he had in 1995, he still had 75 catches for 805 yards and seven touchdowns. Rice left the team and played four more seasons with the Oakland Raiders and the Seattle Seahawks. Rice would finish his Hall of Fame career with more than 1,500 career receptions for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns.
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