(KPIX) — The San Francisco 49ers entered 2019 with cautious hope after an injury-filled 4-12 campaign the season before. Jimmy Garoppolo returned from a torn ACL. The defense added more pass-rushing prowess in Dee Ford and rookie Nick Bosa. Leap-frogging NFC West-rivals like the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams, fresh off a Super Bowl appearance, seemed unlikely. However, a .500 season seemed reachable.
The 49ers shattered all expectations, winning their first nine games en route to a 13-3 record and an NFC West title. There was plenty of credit to go around, with a fierce defense, competent quarterback play and a strong trio of rushers among the many positives. Despite the loss in Super Bowl LIV, the season was an overwhelming success.
The team will enter the 2020 season, whenever it starts and whatever form it takes, as a favorite to return to the Super Bowl. They managed to keep many of their key pieces in free agency. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead returns, as does safety Jimmie Ward and running back Matt Breida. While DeForest Buckner, who was traded to the Indianapolis Colts, will be missed along the defensive line, the 49ers will have a chance to restock the roster in this weekend’s NFL Draft with the 13th and 31st picks.
Speculation has emerged of late that the team might soon have an opening at left tackle. Joe Staley, the 49ers’ best first-round draft pick of the last 20 years, has held down the fort there for 13 seasons. But rumors have surfaced that he might retire this offseason. The six-time Pro Bowler and NFL 2010s All-Decade Team nominee hasn’t let on that he intends to hang it up — his contract runs through 2021. But at 35 years old, and coming off an injury-plagued season, he doesn’t have many productive years left.
Staley was drafted out of Central Michigan with the 28th pick of the 2007 draft. A former tight end, he was one of the most athletic offensive linemen in that draft and was seen to have all the necessary tools and the potential for growth. The 49ers were coming off a 7-9 record that kept them out of the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
The young tackle started his 49ers tenure on the right side, but switched sides after his rookie year. It would be three more seasons until this storied franchise found the playoffs again, and four more until it climbed back into the Super Bowl.
Staley is the last player left from that disappointing 2012 Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens. A fixture at left tackle most of his career, he’s played 16 games in eight of his 13 seasons. Staley has protected the blindsides of Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and now Garoppolo, among others. It seems likely he’ll keep at it for another season. With the 49ers poised for another run, the tackle may be facing his last best chance at a Super Bowl title.
For every first-round draft pick that becomes a foundational pillar, there’s another that barely makes it out of his rookie year. This year, if the 49ers select a wide receiver early in a draft filled with wide receiver talent, let’s hope that pick pans out better than 2004 first-rounder Rashaun Woods. The 31st pick out of Oklahoma St., the team’s worst first-round pick of the last two decades, lasted barely more than a season in San Francisco.
Dominant in college and impressive at the scouting combine, the two-time first-team All-American seemed poised to produce at one of the wide-out spots from day one. But it didn’t play out that way. Convinced he could make it in the NFL on talent alone, Woods never managed to crack the starting lineup. He caught seven passes in his rookie year, including one for a touchdown. A thumb injury landed him on injured reserve for the 2005 season. And a trade with the San Diego Chargers pushed him off the roster entirely.
The Chargers cut Woods before the 2006 season, and the Denver Broncos’ interest in him didn’t pan out. He played the 2007 season in the Canadian Football League, but that was the end of his pro football career.