After firing head coach Jim Tomsula at the completion of the 2015 season after just one year in charge, the San Francisco 49ers were a franchise and playing roster in decay.
Having reached the team’s sixth Super Bowl just three seasons earlier, the 49ers began hemorrhaging talent at an alarming rate over the ensuing seasons.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, running back Frank Gore, wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis, linebackers Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Chris Boreland, and safety Donte Whitner all left town for myriad reasons soon thereafter, leaving the 49ers roster as the most talent-barren in the NFL by most accounts.
The unexpected retirement of star rookie linebacker Chris Boreland was particularly jarring, with the presumptive captain of 49ers defence citing concussion fears for his premature exit from the league.
The signing of new general manager John Lynch in January 2017 was at the time deemed a speculative choice by owner Jed York. After all, Lynch, the longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back, had no experience in such a position.
How Lynch and the recruitment staff in San Francisco have turned this list around inside three seasons has been a roster-building masterclass. Lynch and his comrades have nailed the holy trinity of textbook roster construction: hit on first-round draft picks, find and develop middle and late-round draft picks and trade for pieces to complement the foundation.
Of the nine first-round draft picks currently on the roster, seven were drafted by the 49ers. When the team takes to the field for Super Bowl LIV in Miami, eight of those nine picks will be starters: Nick Bosa, DeForrest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford and Jimmy Ward on defence, Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson and Mike McGlinchey on offence. Staley will be the lone survivor from the 49ers’ most recent Super Bowl appearance.
Lynch has struck 49ers gold in the middle rounds, with impact starters George Kittle, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Jaquiski Tartt and Emmanuel Moseley all found in the third round and beyond in their respective draft years.
San Francisco will also boast 11 players who went undrafted in their draft year, including three of the team’s top four running backs – Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Jeff Wilson – and two offensive linemen.
San Francisco could not have imagined cornerback Richard Sherman would find himself close to his All-Pro best after tearing an Achilles tendon and being discarded by the rival Seahawks, while savvy trade acquisitions Dee Ford, Emmanuel Sanders and fellow free-agent additions Tevin Coleman, Kwon Alexander and Kyle Juszczyk have been fine supplementary pieces.
When the New England Patriots offered Lynch and his 49ers their highly sought-after backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for the irresistible price of just one second-round pick the fortunes of several franchises were altered.
The 49ers share many similarities with their Super Bowl opposition, though there are stark differences.
The biggest contrast in how the two rosters were built is how the franchises came to acquire their starting quarterbacks.
Whereas San Francisco paid bugger all for their franchise guy, the Kansas City Chiefs paid a much heftier price.
It cost the Chiefs two first-round picks and their third-rounder to trade with the Buffalo Bills in 2017, moving from Pick 28 up to Pick 10 to nab the polarising Mahomes out of Texas Tech. And the Chiefs would do it again.
The football community weren’t to know it, but this trade would cause the tectonic plates of the NFL world to shift.
Interestingly, Mahomes is one of only two first-round picks on the Chiefs roster drafted by the franchise. The other is left tackle Eric Fisher, who will be the only former No. 1 overall pick from either team on the field in Miami.
Like San Francisco, the Chiefs have primarily built through the middle rounds of the draft.
Rookie wide receiver Mecole Hardman, tight end Travis Kelce, tackle Mitchell Schwartz and defensive tackle Chris Jones were all drafted on the second day – Rounds 2 and 3 – in their respective draft years.
The Chiefs have 15 players on their roster drafted between Rounds 4 and 7, with an impressive 16 undrafted players of their own. Some of these names include nightmare receiver Tyreek Hill, offensive lineman Lauren Duvernay-Tardiff, Austin Reiter and Andrew Wylie, breakout playoff star Daniel Sorensen and kicker Harrison Butker.
While the Chiefs may have a clear deficiency or two at certain positions compared to the well-rounded 49ers squad, the Chiefs have most of their eggs in the Patrick Mahomes basket, which is a basket in which most would happily rest their assets.
The 49ers and Chiefs rosters are both exercises in the art of roster construction in the NFL.
While San Francisco have turned things around in just three seasons thanks to the masterful tactics of general manager John Lynch, the Chiefs have complemented a roster long admired as one of the most competitive in the AFC with perhaps the quarterback of the NFL’s next generation.
Regardless of which team lifts the Lombardi trophy in Miami, it’s easy to imagine both franchises being around the mark again next season and beyond.