Analyzing the 49ers’ woeful personnel decisions over the last few seasons

Niners
The San Francisco 49ers are a long way from where they hoped to be. Photo from Niner Noise.

After a 2-4 start to the 2021 regular season, the San Francisco 49ers are reaping what they sowed. Multiple years of misguided, risky and downright incompetent personnel decisions have led to the once-promising ball club becoming a rudderless mess.

Niners roster moves 2021

Let’s take a look at the series of bad decisions that have brought the 49ers to this point.

Draft picks

With the developments of George Kittle, Dre Greenlaw and D.J. Jones, the 49ers had earned the reputation of finding diamonds in the rough. However, outside of winning the lottery a couple of times, the 49ers drafting record over the recent years has been absolutely abhorrent.

Starting in 2017, the first selection of the Lynch-Shanahan tenure would act as a microcosm for the team’s draft troubles. The 49ers selected Solomon Thomas out of Stanford. An undersized defensive tackle reliant on speed and technique, the front office and coaching staff made the baffling decision to play Thomas at defensive end, a position he was both unfamiliar with and unsuited for.

Thus, Thomas’ career in the Bay Area never really took off. Thomas registered just 6 sacks, 27 pressures and 23 QB hits in four years with the 49ers. Through seven games with the Las Vegas Raiders, Thomas has already registered 2.5 sacks, 9 pressures and 9 QB hits. Thomas may never turn into a world-beater, but he is a solid player. Nevertheless, Thomas was not talented enough to justify his high draft position or to overcome his mismanagement during his time in San Francisco.

That same year, the 49ers traded up to selected linebacker Reuben Foster out of Alabama. Foster slid in the draft due to injury and off the field concerns. Despite some flashes of excellence, Foster’s career was derailed by, guess what, injuries and off the field issues. Moreover, mediocre backup quarterback C.J. Beathard was selected two rounds too high at 104th overall and running back Joe Williams, who never even played a snap in the NFL, was selected in the fourth round. If not for the selection of George Kittle in the fifth round, Lynch and Shanahan’s first draft would be seen as a complete and utter disaster.

The 2018 draft was somewhat of an uptick in form with the selection of tackle Mike McGlinchey with the 9th overall pick as well as the stellar pick of All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner in the third round. However, the selection of Dante Pettis in the second round, along with his subsequent management, is another bad miss by the Niners. Pettis is not prime Antonio Brown, but he clearly has talent at a position of need for the 49ers. However, due to some behind the scenes issues, Pettis entered the dreaded Shanahan ‘doghouse’ during his sophomore season. Pettis, a second-round talent, was eventually cut by the Niners in 2020.


2019 brought another head-scratcher: the third-round selection of Jalen Hurd. A ‘promising’ talent known for playing both running back and wide receiver in college, Hurd has not played one – ONE – snap in the NFL due to multiple injuries. For Hurd to have barely practised and not played at all three years into his NFL career, yet remain on the 49ers roster, is as comical as it is frustrating.

2020 once again saw another draft miss with the selection of Javon Kinlaw. The decision to take a defensive lineman was not a bad one but selecting one that has chronic tendinitis in his knees is. Kinlaw has flashed, especially when defending the run, but now faces a career hindered by a chronic knee problem.

Later in the 2020 first round, the 49ers traded up to selected wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. Aiyuk had a fantastic rookie season despite the various COVID and injury-related obstacles he faced. Yet, for some unknown reason, the second-year receiver seems destined to repeat the Dante Pettis situation with Shanahan. On a roster that is crying out for offensive talent, it seems both trivial and odd to pick fights with your number two wideout.

And finally, 2021. It is still too early to cast judgement on the 2021 draft, yet there are some serious causes for concern. Once again the Niners reached on a pick, taking guard Aaron Banks in the second round when most analysts had him pegged as a fourth-round talent.

Seven weeks into the season and Banks has not played a snap. Only suiting up once out of necessity. It’s important to note that the 49ers passed up the opportunity to secure cornerback Asante Samuel Jr (a player that would make an immediate positive impact at a position of need) in order to pick Banks.

One round later and the Niners traded up to select bruising back Trey Sermon out of Ohio State in the third round. Despite trading up for Sermon, the rookie is the third or fourth back in the pecking order, receiving a serious lack of snaps. That same round, the Niners picked a cornerback, Ambry Thomas. Thomas is yet to see any real playing time this season. Unable to beat out Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick.

You cannot consistently make bad choice after bad choice in the draft and expect to challenge for Super Bowls. Whether it is taking the decision-making abilities away from Kyle Shanahan or some other tactic, something has to change within the 49ers draft selection process. Shanahan is a fantastic play-caller, but, evidently, he is not a fantastic talent evaluator.

Free agency

I’ll try to be brief here. The 49ers have been equally as incompetent in the free agency market as the draft process.

The decision to trade away proven All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is looking more and more like a colossal mistake, especially with Kinlaw’s injury concerns. Fittingly, Buckner sacked quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on the final play of the Week Seven home loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Furthermore, the decision to not move on from Jimmy Garoppolo after trading for Trey Lance has backfired. The 49ers seemingly tried to have their cake and eat it with the decision to keep Garoppolo, challenge for a Super Bowl, while developing Trey Lance behind the scenes. But that has not worked. If the Niners traded away Garoppolo’s contract this past offseason, the option to spend close to $30 million on defensive backs would have been possible.

Instead, the Niners persisted with a cornerback depth chart headed by Jason Verrett, who heartbreakingly had his season end in Week One, with no one behind him. Thus, we find ourselves with Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick being the one and two corners. This is not 2015 and it shows. The 49ers are leading the NFL in pass interference calls eight weeks into the season.

Where to go from here

No one in the NFL is unquestionable. The 2019 Super Bowl run is looking more and more like an aberration, an outlier, a complete and utter anomaly.

Kyle Shanahan has a lower winning percentage than Joe Philbin. Yes, the 49ers have been snakebit by injuries and the project Shanahan took over in 2017 was a more difficult one than say that of Matt LaFleur in Green Bay. However, coming up five years in, the process has been a failure.

More frustrating than the defeats and the injuries has been the confusing, misguided and, frankly, incompetent recruitment by the Niners. The slew of bad draft picks, free agency moves and the subsequent man management by Kyle Shanahan has resulted in a once-promising team becoming a directionless mess.

Standing at 2-4 with six consecutive losses at home, the 49ers’ season is over. Where does the team go from here? That’s Kyle Shanahan’s and John Lynch‘s job to figure out. But they can start by taking fewer risks on injury-prone players, stop sitting their most skilled players due to petty, off the field reasons and doing a better job of managing their roster.

Despite the darkness that surrounds this franchise at the moment, Shanahan should not be fired and the team can still put together an ‘ok’ season. But no one in the NFL is free from being held accountable for their actions, least of all a head coach with a worse winning percentage than Joe Philbin.

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About Matthew Bowen 155 Articles
Matthew is an MA history student at Swansea University. He is an avid supporter of the San Francisco 49ers and Liverpool FC. Twitter: @MatthewJBowen7

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