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NFL Draft: The Top Five Draft Classes in San Francisco 49ers History

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COMMENTARY | San Francisco 49ers' general manager Trent Baalke has an elite roster and 13 picks. If he chooses wisely, the 2013 draft could go down as one of the best in franchise history.

He would have to knock this draft out of the park, though.

The 49ers have had some of the greatest drafts in the history of modern football. Below are their five best drafts in descending order.

5) 2007. Key selections: ILB Patrick Willis (1st round, no.11); OT Joe Staley (1st round, no.28); DE Ray McDonald (3rd round, no.97); FS Dashon Goldson (4th round, no.126); CB Tarell Brown (5th round, no.147).

To have an excellent draft, a general manager usually has to pick one stud or three quality starters. In 2007, Scot McCloughan, the 49ers' general manager at the time, drafted three studs and two quality starters. The studs were Patrick Willis, Joe Staley and Dashon Goldson. Willis is a six-time All Pro, Staley is a two-time Pro Bowler and Goldson was an All Pro last season. Ray McDonald and Tarell Brown have not yet made a Pro Bowl, but Pro Football Focus ranked them as two of the best players at their respective positions last season. These five players were the foundation of the 49ers' 2012 Super Bowl runner-up team.

4) 1985. Key selection: WR Jerry Rice (1st round, no.16).

Bill Walsh had the 28th pick, but he knew he wanted Jerry Rice. He also feared the Dallas Cowboys would draft him at pick no.17. So he traded the 28th and 56th pick to the New England Patriots for the 16th pick, one pick ahead of the Cowboys, and drafted Rice (the 49ers and Patriots also swapped third-round picks). No other players from this draft became starters for the 49ers, so you could call this a one-player draft. But it was among the greatest one-player drafts of all time.

3) 1979. Key selections: QB Joe Montana (3rd round, no.82); WR Dwight Clark (10th round, no.249).

Walsh drafted the greatest quarterback of all time in the third round and an All Pro wide receiver in the tenth round, a round that no longer exists. If 1985 was the greatest one-man draft, 1979 was the greatest two-man draft.

2) 1981: Key selections: CB Ronnie Lott (1st round, no.8); CB Eric Wright (2nd round, no.40); SS Carlton Williamson (3rd round, no.65).

This draft was the foundation of the 49ers' first two Super Bowls. Ronnie Lott was the best defensive back in the draft, one of the best defensive backs ever. He was the centerpiece of four championship defenses - two as a cornerback and two as a free safety. In the second round, the 49ers drafted another cornerback, Eric Wright, who was an All Pro in 1986. In the third round, the 49ers drafted strong safety Carlton Williamson, who was a Pro Bowler in '84 and '85. All four defensive backs started as rookies, the season Bill Walsh won his first Super Bowl.

1) 1986: Key selections: DE Larry Roberts (2nd round, no.39); FB Tom Rathman (3rd round, no.56); CB Tim McKyer (3rd round, no. 64), WR John Taylor (3rd round, no. 76); DE Charles Haley (4th round, no. 96); LT Steve Wallace (4th round, no.101); DE Kevin Fagan (4th round, no.102); CB Don Griffin (6th round, no.162).

This was the greatest of all time. Walsh had the 18th pick, but he thought there was more value in second, third and fourth rounds. So he traded down about four times from no.18 and ended up with a second-round pick, three third-round picks and three fourth-round picks - all seven of those picks became starters on the 1988 Super Bowl team. The sixth round pick, Don Griffin also was a starter on that team. In addition to those picks, the 49ers traded a second-rounder for a first rounder in 1987, which they used to take Harris Barton, a two-time All Pro offensive lineman, and they traded backup QB Matt Cavanaugh to the Philadelphia Eagles for a second and third-round pick. The 49ers later traded one of those picks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Steve Young. Counting Barton and Young, the 49ers got ten starters and a Hall of Famer out of this draft. No draft ever will come close to matching this one.

Baalke shouldn't shoot to match 1986 - that would be aiming too high. Can he use any of the other four drafts as a blueprint this year? Yes, he can.

The 1981 draft is a perfect blueprint. In 1981, Walsh had a promising young quarterback and an experienced front-seven on defense, just like the 49ers have right now. Walsh had not yet won a Super Bowl, and he needed a few impact rookies to take his team over the top. So Walsh drafted three defensive backs and won the Super Bowl a few months later.

The 49ers never have won a Super Bowl without a dominant defensive back - they won four with Lott and one with Deion Sanders. As the NFL evolves into more and more of a passing league, it is imperative Baalke drafts the next great 49ers defensive back. If Baalke does that and remakes the whole secondary like Walsh did in '81, the 2013 draft could go down as one of the best in franchise history, and the 49ers very well could win a few Super Bowls over the next ten years.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers daily. He writes the "Inside the 49ers" blog for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and has written columns and features for Follow him on Twitter @grantcohn.

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