Their 6-2, NFC West-leading success is indeed the product of a team effort, with contributions coming from every level of offense, defense and special teams—if you may forgive that cliché-ridden statement.
But that assessment pertains to the collective group. What about the individual 49ers that comprise the greater whole? What about the internal rankings of each player on the team?
A league-leading defense constitutes the fundamental backbone of the 49ers. Following closely behind is a steady ground game—mauling offensive line included—that centers a balanced attack on offense. Then there’s a special teams unit that creates favorable field position and the clutch three when needed.
The usual suspects of Patrick Willis, Frank Gore and Justin Smith highlight some of the top players that have fueled the 49ers both historically and in this current 2012 campaign.
Yet, dissecting each matchup through the first eight weeks reveals that the weekly MVPs include a larger selection of players than the three aforementioned.
Based off those game-by-game breakdowns, let’s forge a midseason player power ranking of the top 10 gridiron warriors sporting the Red and Gold.
10. Ahmad Brooks, OLB
Brooks would deserve the honor of best linebacker on just about any other team.
In San Francisco, however, he must settle for a modest No. 4.
The 49ers’ outside linebacker simply does everything well—he fulfills all duties required of him at that position on the field. He diagnoses plays, sets the edge against the run, brings effective pressure on the quarterback and consistently wraps up the opposing ball carrier.
In fact, Brooks has not missed a tackle all season and ranks top three in QB hits, QB hurries and overall defensive stops according to Pro Football Focus.
But the reason Brooks falls to No. 10 on this list derives from the presence of the three backers that play alongside him (more on them later). They do certain things just a little bit better—if an evaluation of an NFL player could be so simple.
One thing’s for sure: 49ers fans are perfectly okay with Brooks’ underrated status outside the city of San Francisco. With his expert sideline takedown of Patrick Peterson on Monday Night Football, though, he just might find himself on the national scene a bit more prominently.
He can thank Jon Gruden for that.
9. Mike Iupati, G
We find next on this list the 49ers’ second-most important offensive lineman on the team’s second-most important positional group.
Mike Iupati is one of the strongest and most athletic maulers at the guard position in all of football. He drives the inside play but has no qualms about moving outside 15 yards down the field on a Frank Gore stretch.
Pro Football Focus illustrates Iupati’s value to the team with a 15.2—otherwise known as the third-highest ranking in the NFL. He absolutely embodies what it is to be a guard in the game of football.
What’s more, Iupati is actually an accomplished pass blocker. He has not allowed a sack and has surrendered just four QB hurries.
For a run-first team, however, the 6’5’’ Samoan makes possible what the 49ers do best—this season especially. Let us know if you find a better interior guard at the left side of the line.
8. Aldon Smith, OLB
For a linebacker that’s allegedly a one-trick pony, that one trick is sufficiently awesome.
Smith nearly broke an NFL record with his 14 sacks as a rookie in 2011. With 7.5 sacks through eight games in 2012, he’ll likely eclipse that mark by season’s end. Let’s also not forget that putting pressure on the QB is fundamental to winning football games.
Yet, as good as he is at inspiring nightmarish fear in opposing quarterbacks, he’s also fairly proficient in other gridiron duties. He plays the run increasingly well from week to week and leads all players at his position with 23 tackles.
And like his Niner brethren on the opposite side, he ranks in the top three in defensive stops—just an activity known as the “cumulative number of solo defensive tackles made which constitute an offensive failure” (h/t PFF).
Put a little polish on his work in coverage, and this man doesn’t otherwise fail at completing his Sunday chores.
7. Vernon Davis, TE
No team relies more on the tight end position than the San Francisco 49ers. Having one of the best in the business sure makes that reliance all the more understandable.
Vernon Davis is truly one of a kind at his position. Not only is he the most athletically gifted tight end in the NFL, he’s also the most systematically proficient at the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
Jim Harbaugh employs multiple jumbo sets against opponents in order to maximize protection and provide blockers for the run game. Davis kills two birds with one stone by executing to perfection his blocking assignments, while also operating as the most dynamic offensive weapon in football.
He leads all San Francisco pass-catchers with four touchdowns and overall big-play production.
VD has evolved to an incredible extent since his early years in the league. The 49ers are both responsible and thoroughly grateful for that transformation. They wouldn’t be the team they are without him.
6. Justin Smith, DE
When you put arguably the game’s most important player at No. 6, odds are his team is pretty good.
The 49ers defensive end/tackle/lineman extraordinaire has dominated in the trenches throughout the season. Per usual, he’s specialized in the grunt work—occupying multiple offensive linemen with one appendage, crushing opposing ball carriers and basically laughing at the idea of taking plays off.
Even in the Week 6 loss to the New York Giants, Smith was the highest-rated player according to PFF. His performance went unnoticed in the way that most of his contributions on the gridiron do on a weekly basis.
The reason why he finds himself this low on the top 10 is a lack of a pass rush. Aside from a brutal hit on the Cardinals’ John Skelton, he hasn’t performed to his usual standards in that department.
Then again, the 49ers are entirely okay with him racking up the second-most tackles at his position—in the NFL.
5. Alex Smith, QB
A quarterback as a team’s fifth-best player?
Indeed—please allow us to qualify that rather controversial assertion.
Alex Smith is a phenomenal QB in terms of executing exactly what the system in place dictates. He possesses a cerebral quality that affords an understanding of a run-first offense and his secondary, yet essential role behind it.
He isn’t a quarterback that’s known for winning games—the 2011 NFC divisional playoff game notwithstanding—but isn’t one that necessarily loses games for his team either.
The Week 3 loss in Minnesota was the result of imbalanced play-calling—35 pass plays to just 16 designed runs—underutilizing Frank Gore and basically taking a collective day off against a purportedly bad, but surprisingly good, Vikings team.
Smith threw an interception that game but wasn’t responsible for losing it.
Rather, he has been the necessary operator behind a fundamentally sound team. He orchestrates scoring drives by delivering the ball to the superior playmakers and knowing the playbook with the acumen of a road scholar.
Aside from last year’s playoff game against the Saints, and based off this season’s loss to the Giants, we really can’t know if Smith will generate a comeback when called upon. What we do know, however, is his ability to break records and maintain 100-plus QB ratings.
The 45-3 stomping of the Buffalo Bills was a prime example of those accomplishments.
In terms of executing an offensive philosophy, Smith is as good as anyone in the game. The 49ers would not be leading the NFC West without him.
4. Patrick Willis, ILB
A 49ers’ linebacker once again holds a No. 1 ranking in the NFL. Patrick Willis is the rightful man for the honor—once again.
Don’t mind the No. 4 ranking on this list, for at this point it’s really a matter of 1A, 1B 1C and well, you get the picture.
Willis is the fundamental lifeblood of the 49ers’ defense. He diagnoses well, covers well, plays the run well and tackles extremely well. Against the Cardinals last week, he recorded four stops and even brought pressure on Skelton on several plays to go along with his usual production.
Equally impactful, though, is his vital nature as team leader and motivator. Willis fuels the entire squad with his pregame speeches and exemplary nature on and off the field.
He is the one that opposing defensive coordinators scheme around week in and week out. As the de facto quarterback of the league’s No. 1 defense, he is essential to the proper functionality of the 49ers in defeating said opponents.
If not for the touchdown allowed to the Lions’ Brandon Pettigrew, Willis would have a flawless 2012 resume.
3. Joe Staley, T
Two questions: which team sports the NFL’s best rushing offense, and who has highest-ranking offensive lineman when executing towards that end?
Answers: 49ers, Joe Staley.
The left tackle rocking the Red and Gold is an unbelievable force in the run game. He clears huge paths for his running back compatriots and is often seen doing so well beyond the television cameras’ ability to capture.
In other words, Staley blocks inside, blocks outside and blocks downfield with the athleticism surpassed only by the backs running behind him. Frank Gore and Co. owe much of their success to the rushing lanes he provides.
Pass protection is not always the strongest component of Staley’s game—his five sacks given up being the notable shortcoming. But three of those came in Week 1 and proved inconsequential in the 49ers dominant win over the Packers. He generally provides Alex Smith with a clean pocket in which to throw.
This is a franchise player at his position any way you look at it.
And once again, PFF supplies the appropriate metrics backing up what the viewers witness every week: the best offensive line with the best left tackle leading the charge.
You can follow him @jstaley74.
2. NaVorro Bowman, ILB
With all due respect Mr. Willis, we have reason to believe you have company in the upper echelon of inside linebackers.
NaVorro Bowman, Willis’ partner in crime, leads the 49ers in tackles, is third in sacks and generally leads the world in plays made at the linebacker position. He officially has held quarterbacks to a 46.4 completion percentage and 41.8 rating when throwing in his direction.
Bowman has not surrendered a touchdown in coverage either. His interception of Aaron Rodgers gave the field position for the 49ers that generated the game-clinching score against Green Bay.
Both he and Willis—with their incredible sideline-to-sideline abilities—have been fantastic against the run and pass, not to mention avoiding penalties through the midway point.
What separates Bowman on the field, however, is his superior performance against tight ends and running backs in passing situations. He has made quarterbacks play at their absolute worse—statistically proven by their aforementioned completion percentage and QB rating.
The Packers matchup was a prime example of the 49ers’ belief in Bowman. He remained on the field in nickel and dime packages while Willis went to the sideline.
Bowman over Willis, eh?
The world-renowned veteran remains the top dog, but Bowman is erasing the gap between student and teacher. He’s certainly linebacker No. 1 in 2012.
1A and 1B, to be sure.
1. Frank Gore, RB
What, were you expecting Daniel Kilgore?
Like Willis, Frank Gore represents the driving force behind this team. Unlike Willis, Gore is the primary mechanism behind the group that puts points up on the board.
Since his first full season in 2006, Gore has been the offense, whether or not there were any supporting pieces around him. This current season has been a career-year in the making to the extent of 656 yards, four touchdowns and a 5.5-average per carry through eight games.
Put succinctly, when Gore goes, so does the team. He’s averaged 16.5 carries in each of the 49ers’ six wins, and barely reached that mark in their two losses. He is the undeniable conduit through which the offense runs.
To wit, Alex Smith plays at his highest level when the 49ers feed the rock to Gore and establish a ground game. He creates balance for the offense and optimum situations for his quarterback, meaning that opposing defenses have to respect both the run and pass. He assumes responsibility, garners the attention of the opposition and allows Smith to operate unencumbered.
Furthermore, Gore is the premier back when it comes to pass protection. No player in the backfield better supports the quarterback position in terms of blocking oncoming rushers.
And this comes from a man who stands well under six feet.
When it’s all said and done, Gore is the essential component to the 49ers’ winning recipe. He helps generate leads on offense, gives the upper hand to the defense and puts a "W" in the win column for the team itself through favorable time of possession to close it out.
Quarterback-driven league, you say?
Well perhaps, but Gore prefers it his way.
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