Levi’s Stadium — As a football fan, there is really nothing more exciting than the fresh start to a new season. What personifies this in the NFL more than anything? That’s right. The NFL Draft. While NFL execs and most of the nation’s cameras are focused on the Draft Headquarters (this year in Chicago at Auditorium Theatre, Roosevelt University) thousands of fans turn out to support their teams on a local level.
It was a great opportunity to be there this year for the San Francisco 49ers 2016 Draft party, both to get the scoop as a reporter and secondly as a fan of the team I grew up rooting for. With a venue like Levi’s Stadium, which is adjoined to California’s Great America by a parking lot, it makes for an amazing fan experience on Draft Day.
My day started with a tour of the 49ers Museum which boasts an astounding amount of 49ers/NFL history. Yeah, we are talking 5 Lombardi’s and Super Bowl Rings, a replica of the great Bill Walsh’s office and you can see each of Jerry Rice’s touchdown balls hanging from the ceiling (all 207 in case you were curious). Visiting the museum and taking in this greatness, made for a great start to a day in which the 49ers were hoping to possibly add another piece of greatness to the fold. Would they make the move fans were hoping to see?
Across the parking lot from the 49ers stronghold lies the theme park now known as California’s Great America. Normally overrun by families and children it was instead adorned with red and gold in honor of the 49ers, their fans, and the Draft Party. Everywhere you looked was something 49ers related and there was a lot to enjoy in addition to the festivities of the draft itself.
The hour leading up to the admittance of fans into the park THF was interviewing fans and polling them about the draft and who they wanted the team to draft vs who they thought they would actually take with the #7 overall pick. Super Fans like 49er Mark who is well known for his “superfandom” and his presence at 49ers games & events and Rhino 49er were out in full force for the 2016 Draft Party.
By the time the gates opened a sea of red and gold poured into the park, flooding the areas where free schwag was given away and other places where cold frosty beverages were being sold. Fans who upgraded their entry ticket to VIP Status entered into a 49ers Wonderland where BBQ, beer, and cheerleaders were waiting in a decked out VIP lounge filled with big screens displaying the NFL Draft coverage.
The main event, round 1 of the 2016 NFL Draft, where the masses gathered would be at the amphitheater inside the park. ESPN cameras, 49ers cheerleaders, even new Head Coach Chip Kelly gave fans more than what they could possibly expect while waiting to hear what player would be suiting up for their team this season.
As the draft began, picks 1-6 were announced to boos and some celebratory screams. There were even some surprises. The top 2 picks went as expected (QB’s Goff and Wentz going in that order to LA and PHI) but it was the third pick, to the San Diego Chargers that made for some odd looks amidst the crowd. Linebacker Joey Bosa from Ohio State was selected and that had 49ers fans really wondering what would happen between there and pick 7 where San Francisco was slated to pick.
Pick 4 was the Dallas Cowboys, who were booed to the delight of Niners fans of course. Pick 5 the Jacksonville Jaguars selected the top defensive back of the draft who many fans I spoke to pre-draft hoped would fall to the 49ers. Pick 6 was the Ravens who took an offensive lineman to help protect Joe Flacco.
The moment of truth had arrived and the intensity in the stadium was similar to a gameday atmosphere. Fans waited intently while the big screen displayed 49ers: On The Clock. When it finally read: Pick Is In, the crowd erupted barely able to contain themselves. Commisioner Roger Goodell came to the podium. Boos were heard in Chicago (like every other time he came forward to speak) and the drone of boos at the Draft Party was so loud you could barely hear him start to address the pick initially.
“With the 7th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers select: Deforest Buckner, Defensive End from Oregon!” proclaimed the commissioner. Not a surprise pick by any means according to my pre-draft poll of 49ers Fans. They had him as their #1 possibility, so you can imagine it was received well. The raucous assembly let their approval be heard. Explosions of confetti and music set them off and when they were caught by the national cameras it was apparent that this was a pick fans would get behind.
For Buckner it was a dream come true. He is reunited not only with the college coach that recruited him (Kelly) and his defensive line teammate & friend at University of Oregon (Arik Armstead, 49ers #1 pick in 2015) but also with another coach from Oregon Jerry Azzinaro who will be coaching the duo on the defensive line.
The 49ers, were not done. In a surprise move they made a trade. Swapping their 2nd round pick and a couple late round picks, they traded up with the Kansas City Chiefs to #28 and took Joshua Garnett (Guard, Stanford) a punishing and physical Guard who Baalke states was the 49ers top rated interior offensive lineman in the entire draft.
They weren’t a QB, or a WR, but when the smoke cleared the team clearly got better on both sides of the ball with their top 2 picks. It’s hard to argue with this philosophy when it comes to restoring dominance and imposing your will in the NFL.
With the contentment of their team’s selection fans were overjoyed as they trickled out of the park towards their cars to head back home. Many of The Faithful chanting, “Niners! Niners! Niners!” Most were smiling and talking with other fans they might not even have known before the night’s festivities.
One thing was clear, the team that struggled under an inexperienced Head Coach last season and had endured so much turmoil & turnover seemed, at least for a night, to gain back the trust of a fan base long deemed as “The Faithful.”
The rest of the draft contained plenty of surprises. Fans almost expected to see a quarterback taken early and this never transpired. It soon became obvious what the strategy was. The trenches, both O-Line and D-Line alike, saw early emphasis as did defensive backs. A QB was taken late but this only tells us that Chip Kelly must believe he can win with who he has under center. Whether it be Kap or Gabbert they seem to be ideal fits for his unique system.
In the end, plenty of talent in the draft and un-drafted talent alike, have found their way into the 49ers camp. We will have to watch it play out like every other year. The true talent will rise to the top and separate itself from the players that just appeared to be NFL talent.
With many new faces, both on the field and in the coaching ranks, 2016 promises to be more successful than last season. Though growing pains are inevitable, The Faithful, will be there win or lose to cheer on their team with hopes of a return to greatness.