By GRANT COHN
After the 2004 season, the 49ers were the worst team in football. They had practically no talent, they had won two games, and they had one Pro Bowler, long snapper, Brian Jennings.
This season, the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl and they have arguably the most talented roster in the NFL. Nine 49ers were selected to the Pro Bowl, more than any other team. The 49ers have the best offensive line in the NFL, the best defensive front-seven in the NFL, and the most exciting player in the NFL, Colin Kaepernick.
The 49ers built this juggernaut in waves.
The first wave seemed to be inspired by, of all teams, the 49ers’ current Super Bowl opponent, the Baltimore Ravens. Since 2000, the Ravens have been one of the toughest teams in the NFL, built around defense and running the football. For decades, the 49ers had been defined by a finesse passing offense, and they needed a complete personality overhaul.
So the 49ers hired the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, to be their head coach and general manager. They also hired Scot McCloughan to draft the players, and they hired Trent Baalke as a scout. These three men are the Founding Fathers of the 49ers’ current roster.
McCloughan drafted Alex Smith with the No.1 overall pick and Frank Gore in the third round. Alex Smith lost his starting job this season, but Frank Gore has been the center of the 49ers’ offense since 2006. “He represents everything I tried to build,” McCloughan told Yahoo Sports. “He blew out both knees and both shoulders, and the son of a gun still goes to work.”
McCloughan drafted Vernon Davis in the first round and Delanie Walker in the sixth round, two powerful, explosive tight ends. For the second year in a row, the 49ers added offense, but not flimsy, flashy players. They got big, strong, rugged guys.
McCloughan conducted an all-time great draft. He picked five current starters — four on defense and one on offense — Patrick Willis and Joe Staley in the first round, Ray McDonald in the third round, Dashon Goldson in the fourth round and Tarell Brown in the fifth round.
The Ravens’ defense had been defined by an elite middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, and an elite free safety, Ed Reed. In this draft, the 49ers got their own elite defensive duo, Willis and Goldson. Today, they’re two of the hardest hitters in the NFL.
The 49ers made their most important acquisition up to that point, Nolan, also was the general manager at that time, signed free agent Justin Smith to a six-year, $45 million contract.
Smith has been one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL since he joined the 49ers, and their most valuable player. Nolan had to take Smith on a helicopter tour of the Bay Area to convince him to sign. Nolan showed Smith Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. It is not known if he showed him Candlestick Park.
The 49ers also claimed Ahmad Brooks off waivers in ’08. The Bengals had cut him after training camp. Today, Brooks is one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL.
Nolan was out and Mike Singletary was in as the new head coach. McCloughan was the new general manager and Baalke was the new Vice President of Player Personnel. They drafted Michael Crabtree in the first round and signed the current right guard, Alex Boone, as an undrafted free agent.
McCloughan got fired just before the draft. Baalke made the picks, and he continued McCloughan’s theme of picking big strong players.
In the first round, Baalke drafted the most powerful player in the draft, Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati. Baalke also drafted another offensive lineman in the first round, right tackle Anthony Davis, and in the third round Baalke drafted a middle linebacker to complement Willis — two-time All Pro NaVorro Bowman. Another grand-slam draft.
Baalke officially became the 49ers’ general manager and his first move was to hire Jim Harbaugh to be the head coach. Together, those two put together one of the best offseasons in franchise history.
In the draft, they took Aldon Smith in the first round. Smith was the pass rusher the 49ers needed, and he instantly made the 49ers’ defense elite. In the second round, the 49ers unexpectedly took a chance and traded up for Reno’s Colin Kaepernick, the sixth quarterback taken in the draft. He may be the best young quarterback in football today.
They also drafted cornerback Chris Culliver in the third round, running back Kendall Hunter in the fourth round and fullback Bruce Miller in the seventh round, and they signed cornerback Carlos Rogers, safety Donte Whitner and center Jonathan Goodwin.
This past offseason, for the first time since the 1990s, the 49ers started the process of building an explosive offense. They drafted running back LaMichael James in the second round to pair him with Kaepernick in the pistol offense. And they signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, two deep-threat receivers, to catch Kaepernick’s lasers.
Twenty draft picks, seven free agent signings, three general managers, three head coaches and eight years. That’s how the 49ers were built.