San Francisco 49ers 2017 NFL Draft retrospective

How should the San Francisco 49ers feel about their 2017 NFL Draft class after three years? We take a deep dive into it.

2017 was a watershed year for the San Francisco 49ers. The franchise, which had gone through a tumultuous downfall since the days of former head coach Jim Harbaugh, inked Kyle Shanahan as its new head coach along with a new general manager, John Lynch. Lynch and Shanahan embarked on a massive roster overhaul, which would see nearly 70 percent of the 2-14 2016 squad removed. Paired with a flurry of moves in free agency that offseason, the Niners were looking to add key cornerstone pieces in the 2017 NFL Draft too.

One of the biggest needs was at quarterback. San Francisco would address that in the draft, albeit not where many expected. Instead, the 49ers would trade down from the No. 2 overall spot to No. 3 overall, grabbing former Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas. The Niners then traded back into Round 1 to grab linebacker Reuben Foster out of Alabama who, despite some major red flags, was at times viewed as a bona fide top-10 talent on the field.

Original Grade

FanSided: A

“Thomas is a great fit in the 49ers new 4-3 defense. New defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was in Seattle when the team traded for Michael Bennett and Thomas is almost exactly like Bennett….The 49ers fleeced the Bears to move down from three to two and used their now excess of resources to get back into the first round this year. They add Reuben Foster who has the potential to be one of the best players in this draft.” — Parker Hurley

Draft Class

Round 1 (No. 3)

1

Solomon Thomas

DE, Cardinal

CURRENT TEAM: San Francisco 49ers

Thomas was widely viewed as one of the safest picks in the draft, who was seen as a prolific outside pass-rushing end in San Francisco’s new 4-3 scheme. The swarm of picks the 49ers received from trading back one spot with the Chicago Bears, who moved into the No. 2 spot, made this first selection even sweeter.

But Thomas struggled his rookie season, recording just three sacks and falling well short of expectations. Many blamed his struggles on him being played out of position that year, and his 2018 campaign was hindered by the premature death of his sister, Ella. In 2019, the 49ers grabbed Ohio State EDGE Nick Bosa after trading for former Kansas City Chiefs EDGE Dee Ford, all but relegating Thomas to a reserve role. San Francisco netting those extra picks sure helped. But Thomas never coming close to reaching top-five potential made this pick hurt a lot in retrospect.

Round 1 (No. 31)

2

Reuben Foster

LB, Crimson Tide

CURRENT TEAM: Washington Redskins

Foster’s draft stock tumbled after incidents at the 2017 NFL Combine, along with suggestions he was injury-prone. But the 49ers, desperate for impact talent, took the gamble. Early on, it looked as if it was justified.

Foster dealt with injuries his rookie year, yes. But when he was on the field, he was a force and signaled what was looking like a revamped Niners defense in the works. However, off-field troubles and arrests early in 2018 cast doubts. A final incident in November of that year ultimately resulted in the Niners parting ways with the talented-yet-troubled linebacker.

Round 3 (No. 66)

3

Ahkello Witherspoon

CB, Buffaloes

CURRENT TEAM: San Francisco 49ers

Ahkello Witherspoon wasn’t active his first four games as a rookie, but after that he began to outplay one of the corners the 49ers inherited in 2017, Rashard Robinson, which eventually led to Witherspoon starting and Robinson’s trade to the New York Jets. Witherspoon struggled in training camp in 2018, but he bounced back nicely in 2019 before suffering an elongated foot injury. Upon his return, the cornerback struggled again and was relegated to reserve duties in the postseason, being replaced by the undrafted free-agent cornerback, Emmanuel Moseley.

Round 3 (No. 104)

4

C.J. Beathard

QB, Hawkeyes

CURRENT TEAM: San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers passed on top-name quarterbacks early — players like Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson — to grab C.J. Beathard at the tail end of Round 3, trading up to get him before day two of the draft was done. Beathard was thrust into a starting role midway through 2017, but despite flashing a tough reputation, he also struggled and was soon an afterthought after the Niners made the now-famous trade for Jimmy Garoppolo. His career 1-9 record as a starter says pretty much what needs to be said about his on-field efforts.

Round 4 (No. 121)

5

Joe Williams

RB, Utes

CURRENT TEAM: Free Agent

Shanahan has long had a knack for identifying and developing hidden-gem talent at running back, and Utah’s Joe Williams was supposed to be the next example. Lynch initially wasn’t interested in Williams, although the general manager eventually changed his mind. But Williams’ rookie season was marked by placement on injured reserve, and he failed to make the 53-man roster in 2018, all but making this Round 4 selection a busted chance taken.

Round 5 (No. 146)

6

George Kittle

TE, Hawkeyes

CURRENT TEAM: San Francisco 49ers

Just think, 31 other teams could’ve had the 2019 first-team All-Pro tight end, George Kittle. Instead, the 49ers landed arguably the biggest steal of the 2017 draft in Round 5.

Kittle flashed his brilliance his rookie season, setting a new modern NFL record for most receiving yards (515) and catches (43) by a tight end drafted in the fifth round or later. The following year, Kittle then set a new single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,377). And in 2019, This season, he surpassed Hall-of-Famer Mike Ditka for the most receiving yards by a tight end over the first three years of his professional career.

Round 5 (No. 177)

7

Trent Taylor

WR, Bulldogs

CURRENT TEAM: San Francisco 49ers

In 2017, it looked as if the 49ers landed gold in Round 5. Trent Taylor flashed plenty of promise to suggest he’d be a major threat out of the slot. The 5-foot-8 pass-catcher turned into quite the third-down weapon for San Francisco, recording 19 third-down catches for a first down, which was ninth-best among all pass catchers that season. In 2018, however, a back injury relegated Taylor to just 26 catches and 215 before missing all of 2019 with a foot injury.

Round 6 (No. 198)

8

D.J. Jones

DT, Rebels

CURRENT TEAM: San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers inked veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell to be a primary base-down run stopper in 2017 and beyond. But by the end of that year, D.J. Jones was flashing enough to suggest he’d be the younger and cheaper replacement. By 2019, that was the case. Mitchell was released and Jones was the shoo-in starter before suffering a season-ending ankle injury late in the year. Still, Jones looks like a gem of a find for San Francisco.

Round 6 (No. 202)

9

Pita Taumoepenu

EDGE, Utes

CURRENT TEAM: Seattle Seahawks

It’s okay for teams to take chances with fifth-, sixth- or seventh-round picks, and Pita Taumoepenu was certainly an example of this. Boasting some pass-rushing potential, Taumoepenu was awfully raw coming out of Utah and would need refinement. He ultimately never made much of an impact, though, shifting between the weekly inactive list and practice squad before ultimately being waived early in 2019.

Round 7 (No. 229)

10

Adrian Colbert

DB, Hurricanes

CURRENT TEAM: Miami Dolphins

Like Taylor, Adrian Colbert looked to be another major steal for Lynch and Shanahan, as he ended up securing the starting free safety role over the latter half of 2017, making some notable pass breakups and tackles along the way. His work against the Houston Texans that year was notable.

In 2018, signs pointed to Colbert being a key piece. But he struggled early that season amid some major defensive lapses, eventually landing on season-ending injured reserve with a sprained ankle. Following some regression entering 2019 training camp, the 49ers waived Colbert despite his prowess shown in 2017, ultimately going back to their incumbent veteran, Jimmie Ward, which worked out well.

Retrospective Grade

Many a good draft land at least two key pieces, plus another handful of depth players here and there. In this regard, the 49ers accomplished this with Kittle and Jones. The former is one of the NFL’s biggest stars, while Jones has shown all the signs of being an important blue-collar piece.

2020 RETROSPECTIVE GRADE

San Francisco 49ers

C-

Bottom Line: While the proverbial jury is still out on Witherspoon and Taylor, the early whiffs on Thomas, Foster, and Beathard drop San Francisco’s 2017 draft class down significantly. It’s too much a waste for the early selections on draft day. At the time, it appeared as if Lynch and Shanahan hit home runs with nearly every selection. While the initial returns looked phenomenal, the eventual results after three years left a lot to be desired, further forcing the Niners to dig deeper into other drafts to rebuild the squad.

Regardless, the 49ers being in Super Bowl LIV suggests Lynch and Shanahan were more than capable of making up for any early mistakes.