Ranking the Top 10 San Francisco 49ers of All Time
As a football fan that grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me tell you that Niner Nation, as a cultural institution, is difficult to avoid. Relatives insisted on watching every game, so I grew up with the likes of Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Even my mother, who is not a football fan, loved Joe Montana. It is hard to say you love the Bay Area without saying that you have at least some admiration for the Niners.
And for good reason. The 49ers are one of the most-decorated franchises in the National Football League. They have an illustrious history that includes 19 division championships, six conference championships, and five Super Bowl championships. They hold numerous NFL records, including most consecutive road game victories (19).
It goes without saying that a franchise like this has had many great players throughout the years, but who are the best of the best? It is tough to narrow down the best 49ers to just 10.
Selection Criteria: While such a list can never truly be objective, I'll be looking at stats and accolades for these selections. I'll also take into account how a player contributed to the success of the franchise during their tenure with San Francisco.
10. Frank Gore
Frank Gore is the only player on this list that, as of 2019, is still an active player in the NFL. He was a productive running back for the Niners in the years where they did not often see the playoffs. While he may not have seen much championship success in San Francisco, he was a strong contributor that still holds many franchise records.
Gore holds the 49ers record for most rushing yards in a game (212), most 100-yard games in a season (9), and most rushing yards in a season (1,695). He became the first 49er to lead the NFC in rushing yards during the 2006 season. He had a major role in sending the Niners to Super Bowl XLVII, which was their first Super Bowl since 1994. His 90 rushing yards and two touchdowns helped defeat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game. By the time Gore left San Francisco, he had 11,073 rushing yards, 2,883 receiving yards, and 342 receptions.
- Position: Running back
- Draft: 65th pick in the 3rd round of the 2005 draft
- Years in the NFL: 2005-present
- Years with the 49ers: 2005-2014
- Accolades: Five-time Pro Bowl selection
9. John Taylor
John Taylor may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of best receivers for the Niners, but that's what happens when you play in the shadow of the great Jerry Rice. While he wasn't exactly a franchise player like Rice, Taylor was still a dependable wide receiver who also offered value as a returner. The 1988 season was a highlight for Taylor, as he led the league in punt return yards and put up 556 yards. In Super Bowl XXIII, he got a punt return average of 18.7; this is still the Super Bowl record. Taylor also caught the game-winning, 10-yard touchdown pass in the final minutes of the game.
In his nine-year career (spent entirely in San Francisco), Taylor got 347 receptions, 5,598 receiving yards, 43 receiving touchdowns, and average 10.2 yards per punt return. These numbers show that he was one of the top receivers in his era.
- Position: Wide receiver/return specialist
- Draft: 76th pick in the 3rd round of the 1986 draft
- Years in the NFL: 1987-1995
- Years with the 49ers: 1987-1995
- Accolades: Three-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowl selection
8. Roger Craig
Roger Craig has the distinction of being the first NFL player to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a season. He was one of the early dual-threat running backs that were magically effective at both running and receiving. This made Craig a valuable asset on an offense that included Jerry Rice and Dwight Clark. He was a major factor in the 49ers winning three Super Bowls while he wore the red and gold. In Super Bowl XIX, Craig rushed for 58 yards and caught seven passes for a total of 77 yards. He also became the first player to score three touchdowns in one Super Bowl.
The 1988 season may have been the best for Craig: He ran a career record of 1,502 yards and made 76 receptions for 534 yards. He also had a career record of running 191 yards in a single game. Overall, Craig would accumulate 50 rushing touchdowns, 16 receiving touchdowns, and 508 receptions during his time with the 49ers. He was undoubtedly a dynamic running back that was an integral part of San Francisco's passing game.
- Position: Running back
- Draft: 49th pick of the 2nd round in the 1983 draft
- Years in the NFL: 1983-1993
- Years with the 49ers: 1983-1990
- Accolades: Three-time Super Bowl Champion and four-time Pro Bowl selection
7. Charles Haley
Charles Haley was a nightmare for opposing teams' passing game. He was the designated pass rusher for San Francisco's defense and had 12 sacks in his rookie season. His best season was arguably in 1990 when he had 58 tackles, 16 sacks, and nine passes defended.
Haley had 326 tackles and 66.5 sacks for the 49ers by the time he retired. He was a valuable member of the defense when the Niners won Super Bowl XXXIII and XXIV. His stats for the team would have definitely been higher had he stayed with the red and gold. Haley clashed with coach George Seifert and often went on angry tirades against his team in the locker room; after retiring, he was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Haley made a huge impact for the Niners in the eight years he was with the franchise.
- Position: Outside linebacker
- Draft: 96th pick in the 4th round of the 1986 draft
- Years in the NFL: 1986-1996, 1998-1999
- Years with the 49ers: 1986-1991, 1998-1999
- Accolades: Five-time Super Bowl champion and five-time Pro Bowl selection
6. Terrell Owens
Terrell Owens may be well known for his colorful behavior and touchdown celebrations, but he is also regarded as one of the greatest wide receivers from his era. While Owens never made it to the Super Bowl with the 49ers, his performance ensured that the team was a consistent presence in the playoffs during his seven years in San Francisco.
The numbers Owens put up speak for themselves. He had an impressive 1,451 receiving yards in 2000 and 100 receptions in 2002. He also had 16 touchdowns in 2001, a career record. He had an amazing 20 receptions in a game against the Chicago Bears in 2000—still a 49ers franchise record. Many remember Owens' contribution to the wildcard game in the 1998 season: The Niners were down 27-23 against the Green Bay Packers, and in the final ten seconds of the game Owens, who was in the end zone, caught a 25-yard pass from Steve Young. The led to a dramatic come-from-behind win of 30-27.
Despite having some of the best stats as a receiver, Owens was not elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame during his first two years of eligibility. When he was finally elected in 2018, he became the first player to not attend his own induction ceremony in Canton. He chose to host his own ceremony at his alma mater, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This may sound outrageous, but we should expect nothing less from the flamboyant TO.
- Position: Wide receiver
- Draft: 89th pick in the 3rd round of the 1996 draft
- Years in the NFL: 1996-2010, 2012
- Years with the 49ers: 1996-2003
- Accolades: Six-time Pro Bowl selection
5. Dwight Clark
Dwight Clark has the distinction of spending his entire nine-year NFL career in San Francisco. He had an unimpressive collegiate career but became a valuable receiver for the 49ers as they won their first two Super Bowls.
Clark's biggest moment was during the 1981 NFC championship game. San Francisco was down 21-27 against the Dallas Cowboys with less than a minute in the game. Joe Montana threw a six-yard pass to Clark, who caught the ball at the top of a leap at the very end of the end zone. This touchdown—and the following field goal—allowed the 49ers to squeak into a 28-27 victory. This play, which is now simply referred to as "The Catch," was arguably the first sign of the glory the team would rise to in the following decade.
Clark made a big impact for the franchise, with 506 receptions and 6,750 receiving yards. Sadly, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease and passed away on June 4, 2018. He is still remembered by fans for playing a major role in one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
- Position: Wide receiver
- Draft: 249th pick in the 10th round of the 1979 draft
- Years in the NFL: 1979-1987
- Years with the 49ers: 1979-1987
- Accolades: Two-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowl selection
4. Ronnie Lott
Ronnie Lott has to be one of the first names that come up when talking about 49ers defense. He was a key part of the team during their dominant years in the 80s and helped secure four Super Bowl titles. He became a starting cornerback in his rookie season, during which he got seven interceptions, three of which were returned for a touchdown. He was the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year award behind Lawrence Taylor.
Lott was moved to the safety position in the 1985 season. He had some of his best seasons in this role, like having a career record of ten interceptions and two quarterback sacks in 1986. He also had three forced fumbles in this season, despite recently having the tip of his left pinky amputated (he chose amputation over a bone graft since it would have meant a longer recovery period). With 721 tackles and 51 interceptions during his time with the 49ers, Lott was big impact player on the defensive unit. His dedication and contribution to winning eight division titles and four Super Bowl championships makes him a worthy entry on this list.
- Position: Cornerback/safety
- Draft: 8th pick in 1st round in 1981 draft
- Years in the NFL: 1981-1995
- Years with the 49ers: 1981-1990, 1995
- Accolades: Four-time Super Bowl champion and 10-time Pro Bowl selection
3. Steve Young
Steve Young is the quintessential 49ers quarterback. He had the rare talent of excelling in both passing and running ability. Anyone who could win three Super Bowls for a franchise and bring in two MVP awards has to be on this list.
However, it took some time for Young to become a star QB. He started his professional career in the United States Football League (USFL), a pro football league that only lasted for three seasons; they folded in 1986. Young was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1985 when the NFL held a supplemental draft for players in the USFL. His two seasons there were miserable. Young had a record of 3-19 as a starter and threw for only 11 touchdowns, while having 21 interceptions.
In 1987, Young was traded to San Francisco, where he served as a backup quarterback. He showed great improvement, with 23 touchdown passes and only six interceptions in his four years as a backup quarterback. The only reason he wasn't a starter was probably because the 49ers had the legendary Joe Montana on the roster. Young got a chance as a starter when Montana missed the 1991 season due to an an elbow injury. Young had an impressive season and continued to excel in 1992 when he won his first NFL MVP.
During the 1993 season, after Montana's departure, Young became the face of the franchise and one of the best quarterbacks of the 90s. His career highlight could be his entire 1994 season, when he threw for an amazing 3,969 yards with 35 touchdown passes and only ten interceptions. He completed 70.3 percent of his passes, the highest completion rate of the 90s. He topped off the season with a Super Bowl performance that included a record-breaking six touchdown passes. This earned him a Super Bowl MVP and league MVP.
- Position: Quarterback
- Draft: 1st pick of the 1st round in the 1984 supplemental draft
- Years in the NFL: 1985-1999
- Years with the 49ers: 1987-1999
- Accolades: Three-time Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP, and seven-time Pro Bowl selection
2. Joe Montana
Joe Montana could easily top the list of the best players in NFL history. He was the face of the team during their years of dominance in the 80s as he led the team to four Super Bowl championships. His most impressive post-season record is having no interceptions in any of his Super Bowl appearances. This gives him a record of 122 pass attempts in the big game, without an interception.
"Joe Cool's" most famous moment was arguably "The Catch" in the 1981 NFC championship game. Another memorable moment was winning Super Bowl XXIII with an impressive 92-yard touchdown drive, when the winning touchdown pass to receiver John Taylor came with only 34 seconds left on the clock. These victories cemented Montana's reputation as a reliable clutch player. Even if the situation looked grim, Montana always kept his composure. As wide receiver Jerry Rice said, he never saw Montana get rattled.
Montana is one of the few players to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. The 49ers also gave him the honor of retiring his number 16 jersey. He remains a beloved figure to this day as one of the best quarterbacks of all time, and his name evokes the 49ers' golden years.
- Position: Quarterback
- Draft: 82nd pick in the 3rd round of the 1979 draft
- Years in the NFL: 1979-1994
- Years with the 49ers: 1979-1992
- Accolades: Four-time Super Bowl champion, three-time Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP, and eight-time Pro Bowl selection
1. Jerry Rice
Jerry Rice is, hands-down, the single most valuable player in the history of the 49er franchise. He was the first wide receiver to get more than 1000 catches in NFL history. Some of his most notable records include most career receptions (1,549) and most career touchdown receptions (197).
The 1988 season was arguably Rice's best. He averaged 20.4 yards per catch, a career high for him. He also had a 96-yard gain during the season, the longest in his career. Rice had a major role in the 49ers winning the Super Bowl that year. In the NFC Championship game, he made five catches for 123 yards and scored two touchdowns. He topped that performance in Super Bowl XXIII with an astonishing 11 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown. This performance won Rice the Super Bowl MVP award.
Rice would go on to win two more Super Bowls for San Francisco. His outstanding career earned him a Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in his first year of eligibility. His dedication to the game is legendary, and he had a streak of 189 consecutive games played. During his 20-year career, Rice missed only 17 regular-season games: Three were missed in 1987 due to the National Football League Player Association going on strike, and 14 games were missed in 1997 due to a knee injury. Rice's name is often evoked during debates about who was the best wide receiver of all time, and he is easily one of the best players to ever wear red and gold.
- Position: Wide receiver
- Draft: 16th pick in the 1st round of the 1985 draft
- Years in the NFL: 1985-2005
- Years with the 49ers: 1985-2000
- Accolades: Three-time Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP, and 13-time Pro Bowl selection