This column is a ballad for the 49ers’ 2011 draft class. Other collections of talent have arrived in the NFL with more fanfare, and certainly others have proved to be more productive. But I would wager than no class in league history has ever experienced as much collective off-field drama as the 49ers’ 2011 rookies.
To appreciate the fiery demise that awaited the Class of ’11, consider the 49ers as they left the field following their victory at Atlanta in the 2012 NFC championship game. The man getting most of the headlines on offense was quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the second-round draft pick in 2011, who had set NFL defenses on their heels after replacing Alex Smith in midseason. Hogging attention on defense was edge rusher Aldon Smith, the first-rounder in 2011, who terrorized QBs with 19½ sacks during the 2012 regular season. Meanwhile, fullback Bruce Miller (seventh round) and cornerback Chris Culliver (third round) also had become valuable young contributors.
The 49ers were headed to the Super Bowl to play the Ravens, and the Class of ’11 was part of the reason everyone figured it might become a regular occurrence.
Culliver tripped the alarm in the week before the big game, though. The moody young corner had begun to blossom as the 49ers’ nickel back in 2012. He had recorded the only interception in that NFC title game. But his mouth overshadowed his coverage during Super Bowl week, when Culliver went on a shock-jock radio show and dismissively explained that he could never play with a gay teammate.
Culliver had pulled the pin on a grenade, and he would have to fall on it. He was the lead sports story for a good 24 hours.
Culliver wasn’t done messing up. In March of 2014, he would be charged with felony hit-and-run after striking a bicyclist with his car. The 49ers let him go after the 2014 season, and the NFL suspended Culliver for one game for violating its personal conduct policy while he played for Washington in 2015. He hasn’t played since, though he had short stints with Miami and Indianapolis.
And yeah, we’re just getting warmed up.
Aldon Smith’s rap sheet is miles longer than Culliver’s, and began to take shape even earlier. It was in January of 2012 that the defender was arrested in Miami for suspicion of DUI. “Well, the charge was reduced to reckless driving,” we said. Six months later, Smith was stabbed when a party at his home in Silicon Valley got out of control. “He was the victim, probably just trying to get people to leave his property,” we said.
Then the incidents began to stack up, sometimes in rapid fire, even as Smith wandered from the 49ers to the Raiders. There have been DUIs and marijuana possession, a bizarre bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport, suspensions, public intoxication and, in February of 2017, an investigation into a possible instance of domestic violence. A common thread weaved through all of it: booze.
And just as football fans began to wonder if Smith might be reinstated for 2018, he hit rock bottom. Police booked him on domestic violence charges Tuesday, two days after his name surfaced in reports, and one day after the Raiders released him.
I still think Aldon Smith is redeemable, but that redemption will not play out in the NFL. His career is over.
There were whispers about Smith when he entered the draft. He had a reputation for immaturity at Missouri. He was someone an NFL team would need to monitor.
The same couldn’t be said for Miller, whom the 49ers converted from collegiate defensive end to NFL fullback. It didn’t take him long to become one of the team’s unofficial spokesmen in the locker room. Despite playing a violent game, he was perpetually patient and pleasant, even gentle, in interviews.
When Miller was arrested in March of 2015 on suspicion of spousal violence, it was a head-scratcher. “But all he did was break his girlfriend’s cell phone,” we said.
The façade came crashing down on Sept. 5, 2016. Early that morning, Miller allegedly staggered into a hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf and, in a drunken stupor, assaulted a 70-year-old man and his adult son. Footage from a surveillance video was shocking. So was testimony at a preliminary hearing last month, where the wife and mother of the victims said of Miller: “He was spitting, he was violent, he looked like a maniac.”
At this point, I feel like I should offer a theory of why the Class of ’11 turned out to be so dysfunctional.
Like, maybe then-general manager Trent Baalke was so consumed with winning that he ignored even the most obvious red flags. In honesty, it would have been hard to see any of this coming.
Anyway, the second-round pick of 2011 hasn’t committed any crimes. In fact, he has been lauded for his community activism and massive charitable contributions. No, Colin Kaepernick didn’t do anything to warrant infamy. But he did invite controversy, and it follows him to this day.
Back in 2012, it would have been hard to imagine Kaepernick as America’s political litmus test. His defining personality trait, at least publicly, was reticence. We all had a hard time figuring out what, exactly, Kaepernick was thinking when he became the 49ers’ starting quarterback under Jim Harbaugh.
By now, his message is clear. I don’t need to walk you through the details of Kaepernick’s journey after he began kneeling for the national anthem during the 2016 preseason to protest police brutality and racism — the anger and pride he inspired, his missteps along the way (see: Fidel Castro shirt), the massive spread of the protest, the battles it sparked between NFL management and labor (and even the president), or the pitiable injustice of Kaepernick’s continued unemployment.
Suffice to say that no athlete of Kaepernick’s generation has proved to be such a lasting source of off-field news. And though he hasn’t played football in more than a year, and never grants interviews to the media, he’s still making headlines. Just Monday, the gossip site TMZ reported that a military official advised the Baltimore Ravens not to sign Kaepernick last summer when quarterback Joe Flacco was nursing a back injury.
Later on Monday, Dolphins team owner Stephen Ross reportedly told the New York Daily News that none of his players would kneel for the anthem in 2018; Ross walked back his statements on Tuesday.
Even in silence, Kaepernick is part of the conversation.
Years from now, it may seem strange that Kaepernick’s noble cause unleashed so much debate and vitriol. For now, though, he remains the subject of both serious news reports and tabloid clickbait. And nothing could be more appropriate for a member of the 49ers’ turbulent 2011 draft class.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.