When ranking the 11 best San Francisco 49ers players of all-time, we have to look at eras. Sure Terrell Owens put up some huge numbers during his time in Northern California. But he can’t be compared to Jerry Rice due to the difference in NFL rules during their playing days.
One thing is clear. Both Joe Montana and Steve Young find themselves near the top of the list. There’s also a current member of the team that ranks among the best players in franchise history. Without further ado, let’s check in on the 11-best San Francisco 49ers players of all-time.
11. Trent Williams, offensive tackle
Trent Williams has played less than three full seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. It’s hard to defend the idea that he’s one of the greatest players in franchise history without delving into the advanced stats. They are absolutely insane, and paint him as one of the best left tackles in NFL history.
Last season saw Williams finish with the highest grade for any player in the history of Pro Football Focus. He allowed a total of 23 pressures in 18 games, postseason included. Dating back to his first season with the 49ers in 2020, Williams has allowed all of one sack in north of 1,000 pass-blocking reps. If we were to look for a flawless player in modern franchise history, Williams would be it. And it’s the reason he’s among the best San Francisco 49ers players ever despite such a small sample size.
10. Joe Perry, running back
One of four members of the San Francisco 49ers “Million Dollar Backfield” in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Joe Perry played 14 combined seasons in Northern California. He won the NFL MVP in 1954, beating out better-known players such as Otto Graham and Bobby Layne. He became the first ever African-American to win that award.
At one time, Perry was the NFL’s career rushing leader before Jim Brown broke it in 1963. He held the 49ers’ career rushing mark for 60 yards before Frank Gore broke it in 2011. San Francisco made the playoffs only twice during Perry’s tenure, making it difficult to place him any higher on the list of the best San Francisco 49ers players of all-time.
9. Patrick Willis, linebacker
A first-round pick of the 49ers back in 2007, Willis’ tenure in San Francisco included rebuilding teams and championship contenders. No matter the status of the organization, this Mississippi product was legitimately the best linebacker in the NFL during a seven-year span from 2017-13.
Willis opened his career having earned six consecutive All-Pro nods and seven straight Pro Bowl appearances. He led the league in tackles twice and proved to be one of the best cover backers in the game. Despite playing only eight seasons in the NFL before a surprising retirement, Willis more than deserves to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
8. Frank Gore, running back
“Frank the Tank” and “The Inconvenient Truth.” Whatever term we want to use, Gore’s ascension to superstardom for the 49ers was not expected. San Francisco selected him out of Miami (F) in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft after he suffered two ACL tears in college. What followed defied logic.
Gore played the first decade of his 16-year career in San Francisco, finishing as the organization’s all-time leading rusher. He put up north of 1,200 total yards in each of his final nine seasons with the 49ers, averaging nearly 1,500 total yards during that span. Having just recently announced his retirement at the age of 39, Gore’s ability to play at a high level for such a long time was otherworldly. He’s currently third on the all-time NFL list in rushing yards. Yeah, this dude is Canton bound.
7. Dave Wilcox, linebacker
Also a member of San Francisco 49ers teams that didn’thave a ton of success, Wilcox played in Northern California throughout his 11-year career (1964-1974). He earned eight consecutive Pro Bowl appearances as one of the best linebackers in the NFL from 1966-1973. That span saw Wilcox record a combined 27 sacks (unofficial) and nine interceptions.
Known primarily for his ability to shed blocks and bring down ball-carriers behind the line of scrimmage, Wilcox was among the first modern linebackers in the NFL. Despite this, the Oregon product didn’t receive as much league-wide praise as the likes of Chris Hanburger and Jack Pardee during that era.
6. Roger Craig, running back
Speaking of the modern NFL and the best San Francisco 49ers players of all-time, Craig makes this list for multiple reasons. First off, he became the first running back in league history to record 1,000-plus rushing yards and 1,000-plus receiving yards in the same season (1985). That same campaign saw Craig led the entire NFL with 92 receptions. From 1983-89 with the 49ers, Craig averaged 1,552 total yards and nine touchdowns per season.
In his three Super Bowl appearances with San Francisco (all wins), Craig combined for 410 total yards and four touchdowns. He’s one of the most underrated aspects of the 49ers’ dynasty and deserves a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Hear that, writers?
5. Bryant Young, defensive tackle
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Bryant Young was among the best defensive tackles in modern NFL history during his 14-year run with the San Francisco 49ers. A first-round pick out of Notre Dame, Brown anchored a defense that helped lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl title as a rookie back in 1994. While he wouldn’t hoist the Lombardi again during his career, he didn’t look back.
Young was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past summer and joins all-time great defensive tackles such as Warren Sapp and John Randle in that exclusive list among defensive tackles.
4. Ronnie Lott, safety
Ronnie Lott remains one of the toughest and most-dominant defensive players in the history of the NFL. From pretty much the get, this former USC star proved his worth in San Francisco. That included Lott recording three pick-sixes as a rookie in 1981. San Francisco earned the first of four Super Bowl titles with Lott anchoring its defense during that span.
Perhaps best known for amputating part of his finger rather than missing games, the toughness Lott instilled into the 49ers can’t go unnoticed. It doesn’t hurt that he recorded a whopping 63 interceptions and 16 forced fumbles throughout his career. Lott also came up huge in big-game situations, including nine career playoff interceptions.
3. Steve Young, quarterback
The original 49ers quarterback controversy. Acquired by the San Francisco 49ers from Tampa Bay in 1987 for two draft picks, Young spent the first four seasons of his career in Northern California backing up Joe Montana. In reality, this should have been seen as a sign of things to come. In limited playing time during that span (10 starts), Young accounted for 27 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
But that’s not what makes Young one of the best San Francisco 49ers players ever. He eventually took over for an injured Montana as the 49ers full-time starter in 1992. After suffering ugly playoff losses in his first two seasons as San Francisco’s starter, Young got that monkey off his back in 1994. He won his second NFL MVP in three seasons, leading the 49ers to a 13-3 record. In three playoff starts that year, Young registered 11 total touchdowns against zero interceptions, including a record six touchdowns in a 49-26 blowout win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.
2. Joe Montana, quarterback
Before Tom Brady was GOAT, Joe Montana held that title for a good quarter-century. Like Brady, Joe Cool didn’t enter the NFL with much fanfare. He was a third-round pick in the 1979 draft after being a part-time starter at Notre Dame. The rest is history. From 1981-1990, Montana led the 49ers to a 98-33 record. He won four Super Bowls during that span, proving himself to be the single-most clutch player in NFL history.
- Joe Montana Super Bowl stats: 68% completion, 1,142 yards, 11 TD, 0 INT, 127.8 QB rating
Those are historic numbers. They also defined what Montana brought to the table as a member of the 49ers. He was a pure winner. The original gold standard. The original golden boy. Brady might have seven Super Bowl titles, but he can’t lay claim to flawless performances in the big game like Montana can.
1. Jerry Rice, wide receiver
Yes, we have Jerry Rice atop our list of the best San Francisco 49ers players of all-time. Honestly, it shouldn’t even really be a debate. The minute Bill Walsh traded up above the Dallas Cowboys to select Rice in the 1985 NFL Draft, it became apparent that we were looking at a GOAT.
Rice led the NFL in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns as a sophomore in 1986. It was the start of a dominating stretch that saw the dude put up some ridiculous numbers. From 1986-1996, Rice averaged 91 receptions for north of 1,400 yards and 14 touchdown per season.
He also came up absolutely huge in the 49ers’ three Super Bowl titles with Rice catching passes from Montana. In those three games, the small-school product caught 28 passes for 512 yards and seven touchdowns. Did we mention that he’s also the NFL’s all-time leader in catches, yards and touchdowns? GOAT status confirmed.