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.