NEW ORLEANS -- In an era when more and more teams are relying on undrafted free agents and late-round selections, the San Francisco 49ers reached Super Bowl XLVII the old-fashioned way -- by stocking their roster with first-round draft picks.
Half of their 22 starters were taken in the first round, and that does not include 2005 overall No. 1 pick Alex Smith, who lost his job to second-round selection Colin Kaepernick midway through the season. Three other players -- punt and kicker returner Ted Ginn, short-yardage blocking guard Leonard Davis and rookie wide receiver A.J Jenkins -- were first-rounders, too.
In contrast, less than a third of the Baltimore Ravens starters (seven) were first-round picks. The New Orleans Saints set the NFL record for yards and first downs in 2011 with one first-round starter on offense -- guard Carl Nicks.
“It's ridiculous,” said 49ers defensive end Justin Smith, a No. 4 overall selection in the 2001 draft. “You look around our locker room, and from head to toe, the offensive line, receivers, DBs, defensive line [are loaded with high draft picks]. It's the main reason we're here. This roster is loaded.”
It all starts with the offensive line, which helped San Francisco finish fourth in the league in rushing (155.7 yard per game) and has allowed only one sack of Kaepernick in each of the 49ers' last five games.
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“It's definitely to our advantage,” Davis said. “We have a lot of talented, hard-working guys. We try to be the best. We don't walk around with our chests out saying we're the best in the league and no one can stop us, but we know what we're capable of doing and try to play up to our own expectations.”
When Kaepernick throws, he can look for Michael Crabtree (No. 10, 2009), future Hall of Famer Randy Moss (No. 21, 1998) or tight end Vernon Davis (No. 6, 2006). That first-round trio combined for 14 catches and 209 yards against Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
“We have a lot of talent on the roster with a lot of guys that are capable of making big plays,” Davis said. “That's what it's about. You need guys like that to win the Super Bowl.”
Justin Smith, the lone first-rounder on the defensive line in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme, has been selected for the Pro Bowl for the fourth consecutive year.
All of the first-round selections on offense but Moss have played with the 49ers their entire careers. The high picks on defense are a combination of hand-picked talent and free-agent imports like Whitner and Rogers.
Still, San Francisco is the model for what is supposed to happen when teams are down for a long time. The 49ers had one .500 finish and seven losing records from 2003 to 2010 before coach Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011, giving them high draft picks every year.
“All the losing helped,” Justin Smith said. “The constant bombardment of top-tier guys gave this coaching staff a lot to work with. They just had to make sure they didn't have players who were all about themselves. We don't have a lot of selfish guys, the me-first kind of guy who really tears a team apart.”