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.
But he was able to make an impact once he joined the 49ers in 2008 – 61 tackles and three interceptions. Spike would have one of the best seasons of his career in 2010 with the 49ers – 82 tackles and three interceptions. He would play two more years with the San Diego Chargers and finished his 15-year career with more than 1,000 tackles.
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.
Smith struggled through his first six seasons in the NFL with a 57.1 completion rate and 53 interceptions against the 51 touchdowns he had. It wasn’t until Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011 when Smith showed potential – 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. He had similar numbers in 2012 before Colin Kaepernick took over. After that, he would have success as a game manager for the Chiefs, but Smith is likely viewed by many San Francisco fans as a first-round bust.
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.
For the first four seasons, Willis had consecutive 100-tackle seasons. His production fell a little bit starting in 2011 as he dealt with injuries here and there. He still had a decent season in the Super Bowl season in 2012 – 88 tackles and two interceptions – but a toe injury in 2014 led to him missing 10 games. Not able to recover the way he would have liked, Willis retired after eight seasons with the 49ers.
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.
But then the bottom fell out in 2015 with a 2-6 record as a starter, completing just 59 percent of his passes. It’s also hard to defend a quarterback with a TD-INT ratio of six to five. The problem is that Kaepernick has never had the greatest accuracy as a thrower. Despite 16 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2016, he only completed 59.2 percent while going 1-10 as a starter.
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.
In 2001, Garcia was 12-4 in the regular season with 3,538 yards, 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The numbers dipped a little in 2002 with 3,344 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His final season came in 2003 with a TD-INT ratio of 18 to 13 as the 49ers finished 7-9. Garcia left San Francisco and played for four other teams before retiring after 2009 with more than 25,000 career passing yards, 161 touchdowns and 83 interceptions.
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.
It sounded like an okay deal, but considering what he did before then, Bryant underperformed with only 733 yards and three touchdowns in 14 games. His time in San Francisco was cut short after he was released. While he had more than 1,200 yards in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his numbers fell in 2009 to less than half of that.
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.
This was followed up with a 16-touchdown season in 2001 and another 13 in 2002. Through eight seasons in San Francisco, Owens had 81 touchdowns. He would move around from Philadelphia to Dallas, then to Buffalo and Cincinnati. Despite being a constant problem in locker rooms, he still put up impressive career numbers with more than 1,000 receptions, 15,934 yards and 153 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.
His second season in 2015 saw an increased workload with appearances in all 16 regular season games. Ward had his first career interception on a 29-yard touchdown return, but he only had one other interception from the 2016 season, despite starting in 10 games. Through three years with the 49ers, Ward has only 107 tackles and two picks.
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.
Joe Staley has been a central point of the offensive line in San Francisco since being drafted in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft. He’s logged 143 starts from his rookie season until this year. Injuries affected him in 2009 and 2010. Outside of that, he’s barely missed a shift. The team plans on the five-time Pro Bowl tackle being on that line through the 2019 season.
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.
In his one and only year, Woods only had seven catches for 160 yards and a touchdown in 14 games, but a thumb injury kept him out of the 2005 season and he was traded to San Diego before the 2006 season. Woods would be cut and was unable to get a job with Denver or Minnesota. Life after the NFL has seen him get involved with high school coaching and he’s been the head coach at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City since 2013.
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.
In his seven years in San Francisco, Smith put up very similar numbers with 299 tackles, 43.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles. He was a big part of the team’s success as they would advance to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season. Smith would retire from the NFL after 14 seasons in 2014, still collecting five sacks in his last year.
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.
After three starts in 2005, he would then spend his final mediocre years in the NFL in the most suitable location – the Cleveland Browns. A franchise known for subpar quarterbacks, Dorsey was one of the names included on the infamous quarterback jersey in the window after a 0-3 record as a starter in 2008 with no touchdowns and seven interceptions.
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.
Gore finished his decade in the Bay Area with 11,073 yards and 80 touchdowns in the red and gold. However, he would leave the team and sign with the Indianapolis Colts. Gore might not be the same running back he was in San Francisco, but he’s still putting up impressive numbers for an older running back.
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.
O’Sullivan had only eight touchdowns compared to the 11 interceptions he threw. Shortly after Mike Singletary took over the coaching duties, O’Sullivan was benched for Shaun Hill and the 49ers finished the season winning four of their last five games. O’Sullivan would spend one more season in the NFL in 2009 with the Cincinnati Bengals. He went 4-of-11 for 40 yards in four 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.