San Francisco 49ers

Best 49ers draft pick in the last 25 years? The experts weigh in

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Bryant Young (97) is carried off the field by teammates after his team's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFL football game in San Francisco, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2007. San Francisco won 21-19. Young plans to retire at the end of the season.
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Bryant Young (97) is carried off the field by teammates after his team's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFL football game in San Francisco, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2007. San Francisco won 21-19. Young plans to retire at the end of the season. AP

Who's the best 49ers draft pick of the last quarter century? I posed that question in a Twitter poll last week. The result: Running back Frank Gore (38 percent) narrowly beat linebacker Patrick Willis (36 percent). Receiver Terrell Owens (17 percent) finished next while defensive lineman Bryant Young (9 percent) came in fourth.

Twitter, of course, is a young person's -- judging from all the misspellings there, a very young person's -- medium, so it's perhaps not surprising that the two players who played for the team most recently finished at the top.

For a different view, I asked a number of writers and columnists who covered all of those players their opinion. The results:

Lowell Cohn, longtime columnist. I rule out Terrell Owens and Gore. Neither was the best at his position in the league. That leaves Willis and Young, both just wonderful. I go for Young. Anchored the defense. One of the greatest linemen of his era. Could control the line of scrimmage. Won a Super Bowl. Pick: Young.

Joe Fonzi, anchor, KTVU. I have to give my vote to Bryant Young. In his first year, they were the 49ers of old. He won a Super Bowl, and with Dana Stubblefield, made up the best pair of defense tackles in any 4-3 in the league. Then he had that gruesome injury on Monday night. We all remember the pictures of Mr. D getting into the ambulance with him and riding to Stanford. They put a metal rod in his leg, and then had complications when they tried to take it out. I think they had to leave it in. He then battled back to become as good as he originally was. He suffered through some miserable teams and never complained. He was a great teammate and simply a great human being. If I had a vote, I’d vote him into the Hall of Fame. I think he was that good, at a non-glamorous position. Young.

Clark Judge, writer, CBSSports.com. Interesting question. If you're talking value it would have to be Owens or Gore because they were third-round choices. But I toss Owens because he was disruptive, divisive and eventually left. Plus, they won virtually nothing with him. Gore a little tougher because of his longevity and career rushing yards. But he never led the league in that category and was only a one-time All-Pro. So my choice is Bryant Young in a photo finish with Gore. Great player, great teammate and was a key part of the defense that was so critical in the 49ers' Super Bowl run. He played his entire career with the club and was as valuable off the field as he was on it -- winning the coveted Eshmont award eight times. To put that in perspective, no other 49er -- not Joe, not Jerry Rice, not Ronnie Lott, nobody -- won it more than twice. He was a four-time All-Pro, an all-decade choice, a Comeback Player of the Year and a Super Bowl champion. None of the others can make that claim. Pick: Young.

Tim Kawakami, editor in chief, The Athletic. Eighty-ninth overall pick in 1996, and 156 career touchdowns -- 153 receiving, 3 rushing. That's easy math for me: Terrell Owens is the 49ers' greatest pick of the last 25 years and one of the greatest picks any team made in this quarter-century. For this list, I'll put Owens -- who should be in the Hall of Fame -- just ahead of Frank Gore and (not included by Barrows) NaVorro Bowman, who went 91st overall in 2010 and might go down as Trent Baalke's greatest pick, if you care about those things. Pick: Owens.

Ann Killion, columnist, San Francisco Chronicle. Frank Gore. Third round pick. Carried the offense back to greatness. Amazing resilience and longevity. Possible - probable? - Hall of Famer. Great teammate. And if they had handed him the ball in the final drive, probably would be a Super Bowl winner. Pick: Gore.

Matt Maiocco, reporter NBC Sports Bay Area. The stakes were probably the highest with Bryant Young. The 49ers traded their first three picks to move up to select Bryant Young. He could not have been a better addition – on or off the field. In fact, if he were more of a self-promoter, he probably would be getting a lot more love for the Hall of Fame. I think he was every bit as good -- if not better -- than Warren Sapp. B.Y. was a key player from Day 1, helping the 49ers win the Super Bowl as a rookie. Pick: Young.

Ira Miller, columnist, The Sports Xchange. Best draft pick is somewhat a matter of semantics but to me the value equation plays into it strongly. So picking Joe Montana in the first round wouldn’t necessarily be a great draft pick but finding him in the third round is pretty good. With that in mind, I’d say the 49ers’ best draft pick of the last quarter-century was Frank Gore because college injuries made him something of a gamble to pick as high as they did (third round, 65th overall). But he’s already among the top 10 rushers in NFL history and headed for the top 5 in an era when the rushing game and running back position has been largely devalued. All of the six players he trails in career rushing yards are in the Hall of Fame and five of them were first round picks — 3rd, 4th, 5th, 10th and 17th overall. The only comparable is No. 4 rusher Curtis Martin, like Gore a third rounder (74th overall). Significantly, Gore gained most of those yards running on 49ers teams that had quarterback problems so he was the focal point of opposing defenses. So in the fuzzy formula between value and production, I have to vote for Gore over first-rounders Bryant Young and Patrick Willis, who were both great players. I do not put Terrell Owens into the conversation because he was so disruptive and, in many ways, a net negative no matter how many passes he caught. Pick: Gore.

Brian Murphy, host KNBR. Of the four listed, two are first-round draft picks, and as such have greater expectations on them. Both Owens and Gore were third rounders, and the choice is between those two for exceeding draft expectations and forging potential HOF careers. And of the two, one was a major positive force in the locker room and franchise lore. Hint: It wasn't T.O. Pick: Gore.

Mark Purdy, longtime columnist. I'm going with Gore, after some heavy deliberation. Owens was eliminated first because he never helped any of his 49ers teams get to a Super Bowl and was a constant locker room disruption. The other three did and are all worthy. But Gore, taken in the third round, played 10 seasons with the 49ers and led the team in rushing all 10 seasons. He holds virtually every team rushing record. He was the most sincere and earnest football player I ever covered and I think his teammates respected the hell out of him. In some of those dismal seasons, Gore would limp off the field after so many losses and you'd wonder if he'd be out there the next week . . . but he always was. This set an example for the rest of the team and I'm convinced held the room together through so many struggling Sundays. That's why it was so heartening to see Gore finally reach the Super Bowl. Young was inspirational in his own way and Willis was maybe the best tackler I've ever seen but they were both first-round picks who were expected to do all that. Gore was the second best third round pick in team history, behind Joe Montana. Pick: Gore.

Ray Ratto, columnist/personality, NBC Sports Bay Area. They all have arguable merits. Based on total career achievements, the ranking would probably be Owens, Willis, Young, Gore, because of the greater likelihood that Owens will be elected to the Hall of Fame before the others and was still a highly productive player after he left San Francisco. In addition, his three best years were in San Francisco, but he did not have a significant drop-off thereafter. If you limit this to only their career as 49ers, Young and Gore win on productive longevity. If all positions are to be treated equally, however, Willis was an All-Pro (as opposed to merely being a Pro Bowl player) more times than the others despite playing the fewest number of years. Given that caveat, I would say Willis, Owens, Young, Gore. Pick: Owens. Or Willis.

Mike Silver, reporter, NFL.com; analyst, NFL Network. Terrell Owens is the 49ers' best pick in the last quarter century, partly by virtue of draft position. To get a future Hall of Famer in the third round--out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, no less--is a testament to scouting, instinct and an acute realization of what skills fit that specific system. Whereas first-round pick J.J. Stokes was supposed to become the compliment to the great Jerry Rice, and ultimately emerge as the team's top receiving option, Owens surpassed Stokes and accomplished all of that and more. By the time Rice played his last game with the Niners--with Owens infamously catching 20 passes that day--T.O. was the league's top receiver. And while he didn't win a Super Bowl in San Francisco, he had a ton of big moments in the postseason, most notably "The Catch II" in that epic (and extremely significant, given the backdrop) '98 playoff victory over the Packers. I know T.O. gets a lot of crap, much of it deserved (trust me, I covered him), but I will say this: No one ever questioned his on-the-field effort. Unlike Randy ("I Play When I Want To Play") Moss, he blocked ferociously on the backside, ran hard when he wasn't the primary target, took on defensive backs downfield to help spring teammates and truly prided himself in his preparation and effort. He and Rice weren't close, but Rice's legendary drive and work ethic clearly rubbed off on T.O. Pick: Owens.

Art Spander, columnist. I think Willis made biggest impact. Young was next. Then Gore (who could be No. 1 for his staying power and attitude; I tweeted last Sunday while watching at the golf tournament at Silverado, "Frank Gore is running against 49ers way he used to run for 49ers." Owens was great as a rookie (the catch vs Packers) then wanted to be a star. Pick: Willis.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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