49ers overcame Lance trade to build a Super Bowl roster behind Purdy
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers made the kind of decision that could set a franchise back for years when they traded three first-round picks to draft Trey Lance third overall in 2021.
The big investment in a potential franchise quarterback turned into a dud with Lance making just four starts his first two seasons and then being dealt away last summer for a fourth-round pick when he couldn't even earn the No. 2 job on the 49ers.
The impact on the field from one of the worst draft moves in recent history has been minimal with San Francisco making the NFC championship game the first two seasons after the pick and now headed to the Super Bowl to take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 11.
A run of big draft hits in previous years, two trades for All-Pros and perhaps the greatest get out of jail free card in draft history.
After missing big on a quarterback in 2021, the Niners hit with the last pick of the draft the following year when they took Brock Purdy.
He took over as starter because of injuries late last season and led the NFL in passer rating and yards per attempt on the way to becoming an MVP finalist in his first full season as a starter. He's done all that while getting a salary of $870,000 this season, allowing San Francisco to spend big at other spots.
“It’s just like hitting the lottery, you get a player like that with the last pick of the draft," All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams said. "Literally like playing the lottery and winning the Powerball when it’s at $2 billion.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have done a stellar job building one of the league's best rosters since taking over a two-win team in 2017.
It didn't start that way, as CEO Jed York recalled Shanahan's assessment of the roster when he interviewed to get the job.
“Kyle was pretty clear. He was like this is one of the worst rosters I’ve ever seen in the NFL,” York said this week.
That quickly changed.
The Niners drafted five players — tight end George Kittle, linebacker Fred Warner, defensive end Nick Bosa, receiver Deebo Samuel and injured safety Talanoa Hufanga — who went on to be named first-team All-Pros, with four of those picks coming after the first round.
But the two most important additions outside of Purdy might have come in trades. They got the best left tackle in the NFL when they acquired the disgruntled Williams from Washington in a 2020 draft-day trade for a third- and fifth-round pick.
The offense reached another level when they traded picks in the second, third, fourth and fifth rounds for Christian McCaffrey before last season's trade deadline. Shanahan was hesitant to pay such a big price for a running back but was persuaded to make it happen.
“Ultimately we were able to pull it off,” Lynch said. “I think it’s paid great dividends. Fond memories.”
The Niners gave big-money extensions to Williams and Samuel and are in line to give another to second-team All-Pro receiver Brandon Aiyuk this offseason.
San Francisco also invested heavily in McCaffrey and have the highest-paid fullback in the league in All-Pro Kyle Juszczyk.
Besides the savings at quarterback with Purdy, the Niners have had to scrimp at other places with the offensive line being the main spot.
The other four starters besides Williams account for about $9 million combined on the salary cap this season. San Francisco used a second-round pick in 2021 on left guard Aaron Banks and a fifth-rounder in 2020 on right tackle Colton McKivitz. Center Jake Brendel and right guard Jon Feliciano were signed as cheap free agents the past two offseasons.
The focus on team building for the 49ers under Shanahan and Lynch has been the defensive line, with the team using three first-round picks in their first four drafts at the position.
The big hit in that group was Bosa, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2022 and has a franchise-record 10 sacks in the postseason.
The Niners also gave Arik Armstead — a first-round pick in 2015 by an old regime — a lucrative extension and signed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $81 million contract this offseason.
San Francisco added to the position by dealing a third-round pick at the trade deadline for a former No. 2 overall pick in Washington, Chase Young.
The key to the defense is the play of two linebackers drafted in the middle rounds. Warner has been the best in the league the past few years and 2019 fifth-rounder Dre Greenlaw sets the tone with his physical play.
The 49ers don't invest as heavily in the secondary but did spend a year ago to lure cornerback Charvarius Ward away from the Chiefs with a three-year, $40.5 million deal. That move has paid off in a big way with Ward being named a second-team All-Pro this season.
The Niners made the decision to move on from kicker Robbie Gould despite his perfect playoff career of 68 kicks without a miss when they drafted Jake Moody in the third round.
There were some shaky moments early, including a missed potential game-winner in Cleveland in Week 6, before Moody seemed to steady himself. But he has missed three field goals and one extra point the past three games.
San Francisco used a fourth-round pick on punter Mitch Wishnowsky in 2019. He had a career-best in net average this season and is one of the best at pinning the ball inside the 10.
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