Grading how well the 49ers did in the NFL Draft
The picks were Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster, but the man who got the loudest cheers from 49ers fans was John Lynch.
Coming off like someone who’s been running drafts for decades, San Francisco’s neophyte general manager pulled off a master’s move in Round 1: picking up extra picks in a trade early on and then using them on Thomas, the defensive lineman from Stanford, and Foster, the hard-hitting linebacker from Alabama.
Lynch later said they were two of Top 3 players on the team’s draft board. The other was Texas A&M defensive lineman Myles Garrett, who was taken No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Browns.
Lynch got a big assist from team executive Paraag Marathe, who, as in previous years, handled the details of the trades. Their initial partner was the Chicago Bears, who grabbed North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky at No. 2. In return, the 49ers added picks in the third (No. 67) and fourth (No. 111) rounds, as well as Chicago’s third-round pick next year. The 49ers also obtained the Bears’ No. 3 selection, which was used on Thomas.
Later in the draft, the 49ers sent their 34th overall pick and the 111th pick to the Seattle Seahawks to take Foster at pick No. 31. Lynch said the 49ers suspected that Foster, who was sent home from the scouting combine after getting into an altercation with a hospital technician, would slide in the draft but perhaps not all the way to the end of Round 1.
He said the 49ers began calling teams about a possible trade when the draft reached the early teens.
“He’s my kind of player,” Lynch said of Foster. “He plays sideline to sideline and he hits anything that moves.”
Thomas, who played football 15 miles up Highway 101 at Stanford, called his selection the “best surprise of my life.”
He said he had little interaction with the 49ers after the scouting combine in March but kept seeing his name linked to San Francisco in mock drafts. He said he resisted picturing himself in a 49ers uniform.
“In my head, I was like, ‘You know, I love that, but I’m not going to allow myself to ride the roller coaster, I can’t believe this stuff because I’m going to get my heart broken,’ ” he said.
His selection reunited him with a former classmate – Lynch.
The 49ers general manager, who played safety at Stanford in the 1990s, returned to the university in 2014 to finish his degree. Thomas, 21, was a freshman that year and they took a class together, Management Science and Engineering.
“I remember I was starstruck the first day of class,” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘What? John Lynch is in our class?’ So I tried to cling on to him, learn from him. … It was a really cool experience to be in class with him.”
Thomas said the two spoke on the phone several times since, including before Stanford’s Sun Bowl game in December against North Carolina. Thomas was debating whether to enter the draft at the time and Lynch, 45, told him to block out the distractions and “just show them you’re unstoppable and unblockable.”
Thomas took that advice to heart, dominating the Tar Heels offensive line and harassing Trubisky throughout the game, including a sack on North Carolina’s pivotal, final offensive snap. Thomas overshadowed the more heralded Trubisky in Stanford’s win, which launched his rise up draft boards. He continued that ascent with an outstanding performance at the scouting combine.
How he fits into a 49ers defense that used first-round picks on Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner the past two years will be determined this spring. “There are four defensive linemen,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “And the thing about Solomon is that he has the ability to play all four of them.”
Foster, meanwhile, was considered the top inside linebacker in the draft and drew comparisons to former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis. Foster, in fact, said he modeled his game after Willis and former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
“I want to be that next Patrick Willis (and have people) say, ‘I want to be the next Reuben Foster,’ ” he said on a conference call. Asked to describe his playing style in one word, Foster said, “savage.”
He’ll likely compete with free-agent acquisition Malcolm Smith at weak-side linebacker this season and possibly could take over for middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman in the future.
At one point in the pre-draft process there was talk that the 49ers might select Foster with their No. 2 overall pick.
His stock dropped, however, after the altercation at the combine and because he had a diluted urine sample at the event, which automatically puts him into the NFL’s drug program. Finally, he recently had surgery on his right shoulder and was unable to work out for teams in the run-up to the draft.
“I anticipate people maybe questioning his character,” Lynch said. “But I would tell you his character is what drew us to him. When you start talking football with this young man, he lights up the room. And he’s a good kid. I believe in the kid.”
Foster publicly acknowledged his failed urine test last week and called teams, including the 49ers, to discuss the issue. As for his shoulder injury, he said he’s 90 percent recovered and will be ready to practice in training camp.
“I’ve got things to prove,” he said. “Big things to prove.”