• Shelly Holt

Faithful Then, Faithful Now: Current 49ers That Bring Back Memories of the Greats of the Past

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

The San Francisco 49ers’ record may be 1-6 as we head towards the halfway part of the 2018 season. But, there are several bright spots on the roster now for us to celebrate while we wait (patiently) for the team to have a winning season again.

So, it seems a perfect time to recognize the awesome talent the Niners currently have by marching down memory lane and comparing them with outstanding players from the past.


Vernon Davis was drafted sixth overall by San Francisco in the 2006 NFL Draft and would play ten years of his thirteen-year career with the team (2006-2015). While donning the red and gold, #85 racked up 441 receptions, 5,640 yards and 55 touchdowns. Each of these stats are the most by any 49ers tight end in history.

What makes Davis a special player (to this day) is his incredible athleticism, ability to block, passion for the game and durability. At 6’3”, 244 pounds, the former Terrapin boasted a quick 4.38 second 40-yard dash at the 2006 Combine along with a 10’08” broad jump, almost a foot farther than any other prospective tight end.

In the fourth season of his NFL career, he made the Pro Bowl for the first time after recording 965 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns (at the time tied for the most by any tight end in a single season). Davis’ second Pro Bowl season came four years later in 2013 when he was an integral part of the success of the Niners 12-4 season under Coach Harbaugh.

All told, Davis played for the organization during many up and down years, but he was a major contributing factor in the offense every time he stepped on the field. What 49ers fan can forget “The Catch III”?

It’s no coincidence that current second year Iowa grad, George Kittle, wears Davis’ old number and is starting to emulate his excellence.

Already, through seven games among tight ends, the 25-year old Kittle has 32 receptions (tied for fifth most), 527 yards (third most in the league), 2 touchdowns and averages 75.3 yards per games (third most in the league). He also scored an 82-yard touchdown, the longest in the league for a tight end so far this season.

Standing tall at 6’4” and 247 pounds, Kittle’s athleticism has shined and he is considered one of the top tight ends in the league. Just this past week, Pro Football Focus gave him top honors as the highest graded tight end with an 86.5 overall.

Ironically, much like how Davis suffered through some hardship years in San Francisco and had multiple quarterbacks to receive from, Kittle is also feeling the effects of two losing seasons in a row and a rotating quarterback carousal.

Despite this, both players have been crucial components to keeping the Niners afloat, and their individual athleticism and blocking abilities has helped the team remain competitive.

Only time will tell how far Kittle goes in this league. His potential and talent are abundant. And, his numbers are already scorching the charts.

While Davis came out of the Combine with similarly high expectations, some feel he never fully accomplished what he was able to. Of course, inconsistent quarterback play and injuries contributed. Still, Davis was one heck of a 49er and Kittle is on his way towards matching or even surpassing his quality of play.


The 49ers have seen their fair share of terrific running backs over the years. But, Frank Gore defined the essence of what a productive and durable back can be in this league, even if small in stature (5’9”, 217 pounds). And, he’s still doing it at the age of 35 with Miami as the oldest running back in the league.

The heyday of his career came when he was with San Francisco his first ten years in the league (2005-2014), becoming the team’s all-time leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. He also had eight 1,000-plus rushing yard seasons, went to the Pro Bowl five times and amassed 13,956 total scrimmage yards while with the Niners.

Through it all, Gore sustained a high volume of injuries, including two ACL tears in college, major surgery on both shoulders and a variety of other afflictions. But, incredibly, he has not missed a regular season start in the past seven seasons.

His speed, power, toughness and size are akin to second-year back Matt Breida who currently leads the league in yards per carry (6.5), yards before contact (3.7) and ranks eighth amongst running backs in total yards (445). Earlier in the season before injury, he was the NFL’s leading rusher and had the most yards per carry.

The 5’10”, 190 pound Breida has also been revered for his work ethic and toughness for his smaller size. Through the first seven games of the season, he’s played through injury (ankle) and has had to be pulled out of play despite his will to continue while in pain. This grit and passion for the game is what coaches like to see in young running backs and its exactly what Gore has had his entire career.

Hopefully soon, Breida can recover enough to keep improving and take on bigger workloads in the season to come. In the meantime, the young Georgia Southern grad has shown signs that he could become a force in this league and has the potential to follow in the footsteps of the great Frank Gore.


Left tackle Joe Staley started his athletic career in high school on the track team. He became a star, set three school records in track and field and earned all-state honors. He received a football scholarship for college and began as a 250-pound tight end until he was moved to the offensive line during his sophomore season.

That explains where the speed comes from. Staley performed the 40-yard dash at the 2007 Combine in 4.78 seconds (incredible for a 6’5”, 300-pound man). Today, at 34 years old, he’s still thought to be among the fastest lineman in the league.

He was ultimately selected by the 49ers in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft and started his pro career that same year at right tackle. He was then moved to the left side a year later where he has remained for the last eleven years.

Staley has been a consistently good stalwart of the offensive line through the years, particularly giving fits to the pass rushers he’s faced, but he’s also known to be powerful in the run game. Among the other assets he brings to the 49ers is his intelligence and leadership skills. His colorful personality lends itself to being gregarious as a locker room leader.

It’s why he’s the perfect mentor for the rookie right tackle, 24-year old Mike McGlinchey. Selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, the Notre Dame grad started the new season right away under Staley’s wing. Together, the chemistry has been right and the several parallels of their playing styles should help the young lineman succeed. Both are athletic, cerebral, nimble, hard workers and doers.

Under Staley’s tutelage in 2018 so far, McGlinchey gained the confidence to improve and has become an elite lineman already. He’s earned excellent grades from experts, including Pro Football Focus who ranks him ninth among 79 offensive tackles and has given him top honors as the best run blocker this season.

Together, Staley and McGlinchey are a great duo and form the foundation of what hopefully will continue to be a 49ers offensive line on the rise. They are a great example of the past and future working together right now.


It’s a leap to parallel a second-year struggling player with a potential first ballot Hall of Famer, but Foster has the ability to become an elite talent. (And, it gives us an excuse to drag back out the Willis pride machine.)

Willis is the guy that Foster wants to emulate. He is who all inside linebackers should want to be. It was only eight seasons (2007-2014), but they were one hell of a ride. For him. For us.

After a prolific college career at Ole Miss and an impressive Combine where he showcased incredible speed and athleticism, Willis was drafted in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the 49ers. He was coached by Mike Singletary and immediately made an impact. The rookie finished his 2007 season leading the league in tackles, was one of only two Niners selected to the Pro Bowl, and was named first-time All Pro and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

In the years that followed, Willis kept racking up the stats and destroyed offenses. For four consecutive seasons (2007-2011), he had 100or more tackles, earned a total of 732 career tackles in 112 games played, garnered five first team All-Pro Selections, and earned seven Pro Bowl selections. Bottom-line: Willis was the best at his position for most of his eight years in the league. He had power, strength, leadership skills and a steadfast determination to disrupt.

Willis chose to retire early, at the peak of his prowess and “on [his] terms”. But, he remains the best linebacker that San Francisco ever had and a fan favorite. His life story is also endearing. He overcame abject poverty and an alcoholic father only to rise up and become one of the greatest multi-talented athletes in history, all while remaining humble.

If Reuben Foster stays healthy and out of trouble, he could realize similar success. He was a high school football star and elite inside linebacker at Alabama where he made first-team All-American, was an All-SEC pick and achieved the Butkus Award as the nation’s top collegiate linebacker.

The 49ers drafted Foster in the first round of the 2017 Draft and he showed his prowess immediately during his rookie season. In only ten games (due to injury), he had a combined 72 tackles, ranked high among linebackers for run-stop percentage, was the highest ranked rookie linebacker at end of year and earned the 10th-highest grade among all NFL linebackers according to PFF. If Foster managed a full 2017 campaign, he would have been a major contender for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Coming into 2018 expectations were high for the 24-year old and he has not lived up to those standards so far. But, once the rust is gone, we should see a return of the excellence this young linebacker is capable of.


Yet again, I’m comparing a young player to a potential Hall of Famer. This time, I see the ability in Buckner to become an enduring defensive lineman and like Young, never dropped his level, even after fourteen seasons with the 49ers.

Similar to many of the previous 49ers legends I’ve mentioned, Young came to San Francisco as a first round draft pick (1994 NFL Draft). He had been a three-year starter at Notre Dame where he showed great promise when he was awarded an Honorable Mention All-American selection and managed 7.5 sacks in his final collegiate season.

From there, Young started almost every pro game for fourteen seasons (1994-2007), all with the Niners. With a total of 208 games under his belt, no other defensive lineman in San Francisco history has started more.

His greatest statistical seasons were in 1996 when he garnered 11.5 sacks, 76 combined tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble; and 1999 when he had 11.0 sacks and 41 combined tackles. But, he also had four seasons with 8.0 or more sacks and a total of 89.5 total sacks, good for fourth all time among defensive tackles. He was also selected to the Pro Bowl those two years, plus two more and made the First Team All-Pro in 1996.

Young also won a Super Bowl with the 1994 team but maintained his excellence even when the 49ers weren’t as good. In 1998, he sustained a terrible leg injury requiring a metal rod to be inserted, but came back the next season and excelled enough to earn Comeback Player of the Year. He was recently nominated for the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame.

DeForest Buckner may only be 24, but his durability early in his career has been admirable and his full potential still unrealized. During his rookie year in 2016, he had 6.0 sacks, 73 combined tackles and 18 quarterback hits. In 2017, the 6’7”, 300-pound lineman ranked first among interior defenders in quarterback hits despite fewer sacks.

But, the future seems bright for this kid the team has nicknamed “D-POY” (for Defensive Player of the Year). He’s only one of eight defenders in the league to have a pressure average of 12.5% or better this season, according to PFF. And, he’s continuously a stand-out menace to offenses.

Even without a gold jacket, Young is a great idol for an up and coming lineman like Buckner to put on a pedestal. We’ll see if he can indeed fill #97’s shoes as his young career marches on.

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