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December 06, 2001

Bill Walsh is the Draft Man
By Dan Patrick

At 69 years old, Bill Walsh is heading into his last NFL draft. As general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Walsh virtually built and sustained a dynasty on draft days. And though free agency has become more complicated and changed the NFL since Walsh's heyday in the 1980s, he still follows the same rule when it comes to putting together a roster.

Jerry Rice
Wide receiver Jerry Rice was just one of Bill Walsh's highly successful first-round picks.
"You complement with free agents," says Walsh. "But you build with draft picks."

Before free agency and the salary cap, Bill Walsh liked to make trades. And he was not bashful about using a little gamesmanship. "I would often throw out names like Joe Montana or Steve Young. I 'd say, 'We'll trade Young or Montana but we will not part with X,'" says Walsh. "Of course, that would only pique interest in X."

In the mid-'80s, the Niners picked up key players like Fred Dean, Russ Francis, Wendell Tyler and Steve Young in trades. Young, a Hall of Famer in waiting, came to San Francisco for a second- and a fourth-round pick. Bill Walsh often saw things other people didn't.

Remember that other quarterback the Niners had a few years back? Joe Montana from Notre Dame? Most scouts thought he was too slight physically and didn't have an NFL arm. But Walsh focused on what he did like. "Great feet -- Joe Namath feet," says Walsh.

Walsh canvassed the league and discovered that nobody was really interested in Montana. So Walsh, without a first-round pick that year, did not have to scramble or trade up to get his guy. Montana was there in the third round and the Niners began their ascent.

Walsh rarely wasted a high first-round pick. Want the proof? Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Harris Barton. Late-round steals are also important in building a team on draft day. Don Griffin and Elvis Grbac were nice late-round picks, but finding Jesse Sapolu in the 11th round in 1983 was brilliant.

The Bill Walsh draft to talk about, remember and study is 1986.
But the Bill Walsh draft to talk about, remember and study is 1986. By trading down twice and making six trades, Walsh had 13 picks and came up with eight players of real consequence. Here they are: Larry Roberts, Steve Wallace, Tom Rathman, Tim McKyer, John Taylor, Charles Haley, Kevin Fagan and Don Griffin.

Walsh will miss the excitement of draft day, of hunkering down and whipping up a surprising deal that gives him some extra picks. He was always buying and selling in the 1980s like Gordon Gekko with a headset and clipboard. He always wants the picks because he is confident that he can do something with them. Needless to say, Walsh is disappointed that the draft is only seven rounds now. Can you blame him?

San Francisco picks ninth this year, but Walsh loves to trade down. I don't know who it might be, but I would love it if someone they pick this year becomes a big star, a cornerstone of the franchise. If it happens, the guy will be lucky because he'll have a pretty neat tag on him.

"He's from Bill Walsh's last draft."

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