The San Francisco 49ers are coming off of long back-to-back long postseason runs, losing in the NFC Championship Game in 2011-12, and falling in the Super Bowl in 2013.
It’s no wonder then that they will enter the 2013 season as one of the prohibitive favorites to make it back to the NFL's Promised Land.
Many of the pieces are already in place, but nothing is ever certain in the NFL. If the 49ers do hope to finally return to the pinnacle of football glory, some of those key pieces must step up.
Here are, in this writer’s humble opinion, the 10 most important players on the current 49ers' roster in what is not a ranking of the best players on the team's roster, but a ranking of which players carry the most burdensome roles.
Before you decide to hang me for not ranking Frank Gore, let me just say this: I love Gore. He has had a remarkable career and I don’t think he’s done yet. My expectations for him this season can be found in a previous article of mine.
At the same time, however, I cannot put him on the list simply because of the strength of the 49ers' running back depth chart. While LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter are certainly not household names, they are both capable and talented backs in their own right.
Should Gore succumb to the wear and tear the NFL has put him through, the 49ers' running game would not be lost. The versatility of James and Hunter can pick up the slack. And as blasphemous as this may sound, the explosiveness that his backups bring could even elevate the 49ers' pistol formation even more.
So, once again, no knock on Gore, but in terms of sheer importance to the success of the team, the San Francisco stalwart running back just barely misses the cut.
Oh yes, we’re starting with a guard. Not just any guard either, but perhaps the most consistent one in all of football.
In terms of importance to his team, none will have as significant a role as Mike Iupati.
Iupati will not just be expected to pick up the massive defensive tackles who will try to pummel his quarterback (although his efforts here will be greatly appreciated). Playing guard for the San Francisco 49ers requires a whole lot of running.
In the read option, many of the sets involve the guard pulling, which occurs as soon as the ball is snapped. He will abandon his blocking assignment and instead sprint to the opposite end to pick up the first unblocked defender.
It is his ability to target this defender that allows either the quarterback or running back to break through the first line of defense. If the pulling guard fails—barring some remarkable playmaking by the ball carrier—the play is dead. It’s as simple as that.
Fortunately for the 49ers, Iupati is as reliable as they come at his job.
Before Michael Crabtree went down, 49er fans were giddy at the prospect of lining up two of the most sure-handed and physical receivers in the league next to each other.
With Crabtree out, the burden of being the No. 1 receiver now falls squarely on the broad shoulders of Anquan Boldin.
At 32 years old and now in his 11th season in the league, the question as to whether Boldin can still shoulder that burden could determine the fate of the offense. The 49ers need him to return to his ultra-productive ways, perhaps bringing back shades of his dominant Arizona Cardinals seasons to the Bay Area.
It will be more than just his receiving prowess, however, that could prove beneficial to his new team in San Francisco. Always one of the top blockers at his position, the 49ers will need Bolding to help pave the way if the pistol has any chance of succeeding.
Fortunately for the 49ers, they saw firsthand in last season's Super Bowl the perils that defenses face when lining up opposite of Boldin. The 49ers hope that his otherworldly postseason performances are a precursor to what he will do for them, and that he is not merely a fading façade of the player he one was.
Whitner is the 49ers' last line of defense. Anything that succeeds over the top falls directly on his shoulders.
The numbers in the Super Bowl weren’t pretty. The Niners allowed two touchdowns on his watch, touchdowns which he tried to attribute to anyone but himself after the game, as reported by Steve Berman of BASG:
Just caught up, I don’t know. Chris was man-to-man, that was his guy, and Jones just got behind him. The guy’s an extremely talented guy, the guy who caught the football, extremely fast. (Culliver will) be better next year. He’ll be better covering the outside next year, and hopefully we don’t give up those type of plays. It’s the Super Bowl. Coverage goes with rush, and on that play I don’t know if we had the best rush. We definitely didn’t have the best coverage. Joe Flacco was able to step up, throw it deep, and that’s exactly what we didn’t want all week long. So it’s on everybody. It’s not on Chris. It’s not just on the secondary. It’s not on the linebackers or the defensive line. It’s on everybody, because rush goes with coverage and on that play we didn’t have good coverage or we didn’t have good rush.
Simply put, the 49ers can’t have that.
Whitner emerged as a leader of the defense over the past few seasons. A leader must take responsibility for his actions, good or bad, and he definitely can’t throw his teammates under the bus. His remarks were disappointing, to say the least.
The 49ers need Whitner to be better next season, both on and off the field. Whitner is a good player, but the 49ers need him to be great. If he isn’t, Jones will not be the last player to take advantage of his defensive lapses.
The importance here is obvious. Joe Staley will again be protecting the backside of the most precious commodity the 49ers possess in quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Since being drafted in 2007, Staley has done nothing but get better, turning himself into one of the premier left tackles in the game. As is the case with many players on this list, however, health will always be a factor for Staley. As long as he can stay on the field, he will continue to excel.
Excellent in both passing and running downs, Staley will be relied upon to hold his own against the premier pass-rushers in the league. He will also be depended upon to open holes when the pistol formation dictates the action proceed on the left side.
It really is quite simple; If Staley plays well, the 49ers' offense as a whole succeeds. Any decline, however, will most likely be attributed to a bad game from him.
If the 49ers hope to redeem their Super Bowl loss, Staley must hold his own against the best that other defenses have to offer.
What a difference one season can make.
Carlos Rogers made an incredible splash upon his arrival in San Francisco in 2011, recording six interceptions and being named to the Pro Bowl. However, his 2012 season can simply be summed up as an unequivocal disaster.
It wasn’t the fact that his interceptions plummeted, as Rogers only recorded one last season. It was the overall decline of his game that had 49er fans frustrated.
Rogers was consistently burned in coverage last season, with the burden of blanketing other teams' No. 1 receivers finally catching up to the 31-year-old cornerback.
With the San Franciso secondary in a bit of a transition phase right now, Rogers must return to the reliable player he was in his first season. The 49ers do not yet know what they have in Eric Reid and Nnamdi Asomugha, with the former a rookie and the latter coming off a disastrous stint in Philadelphia.
Rogers must take on a leadership role in the secondary if the final line of defense has any hopes of backing up the front seven. If he fails, the secondary fails.
He will be again be tasked with guarding the opposition's best receivers. If he doesn’t improve on last year’s performance, disaster could be in store.
I know what you’re thinking. How is a guy who accumulated 19.5 sacks last season and named to the NFL’s All-Pro team be only fifth in this ranking?
Well, it’s quite simple, actually. A lot of his success was a byproduct of another player with the same last name.
Let’s be clear, Aldon Smith is a supremely talented player, one who has accumulated more sacks through the first two seasons of his career than any other player in history (33.5). However, we also can’t ignore the fact that his production plummeted the moment Justin Smith went down with a triceps injury.
Here’s the thing, though. He’s only 23 years old and entering his third year in the league. The younger Smith has barely scratched the surface of his potential. If he can record 19.5 sacks in a season as an unpolished defensive end/outside linebacker—Justin Smith or not—the sky truly is the limit for this young man.
With Justin Smith entering the twilight of his career, the onus will soon fall on Aldon Smith to become the destructive force as his linemate. The evolution of his pass-rush skills will become increasingly important as he adds more and more responsibility to his role on the defense.
If you looked up the definition of frustrating in a dictionary, I’m positive you would find Vernon Davis somewhere in there. Well, maybe not positive, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
You know how everybody always says that if LeBron James came to the NFL, he would be unstoppable? Well, Davis is evidence to the contrary.
At 6’3”, 250 pounds, Davis is the ultimate NFL specimen, a combination of speed and power who, in theory, should dominate the gridiron.
Then you look at his stats last year—41 receptions, 548 yards and five touchdowns.
Did I miss something here?
For the 49ers' offense to perform at its maximum capacity, Davis must revert to his 2009 form, with the injury of Michael Crabtree accentuating that need even more.
That being said, however, the value that Davis provides goes beyond just catching the football. An elite blocker for his position, Davis will play an integral role in the success of the 49ers' read option.
The holes that he will help open up will be just as important as anything he does with the ball in his hands.
Notching 268 combined tackles last season, the brick wall that these two inside linebackers made up signaled the end of the line for any running back who managed to break through the first line of defense.
The emergence of Bowman has allowed Willis to take on a much larger role in the 49ers' defense. As the most physically gifted linebacker in football, Willis has taken it upon himself to be more than just a run-stopper, frequently dropping back in coverage and eliminating any receiver meandering down the middle of the field.
No duo works better off of each other than the All-Pro inside linebackers of San Francisco, with their work combining to cover up any mix-ups elsewhere. Their speed, power and astronomical football IQ’s allow head coach Jim Harbaugh the comfort to continue to add to an already-elite defense.
With the read option becoming a large portion of the San Francisco 49ers' offense this past season, Colin Kaepernick’s role in the pistol formation is of the upmost importance.
It all begins and ends with his perception of the situation.
His value, however, extends far beyond just his role in the pistol formation. The moment a quarterback as versatile and talented as Kaepernick steps onto the football field, the defense is in trouble.
He is one of those rare quarterbacks who can render a perfect defensive scheme useless. That edge rusher coming from the outside might just get sidestepped by the ever-nimble Kaepernick. Oh, a corner blitz is next? Kaepernick just found the open man.
As spectacular as his athletic feats were, there was always a Kaepernick throw that was just as impressive. As effective as the read option has been, Kaepernick will prove this season that he is not just the product of a gimmick offense. He possesses all the requisite tools necessary to become an elite signal-caller.
Look for head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman to find new and frightening ways of unleashing their untapped vessel of potential.
Patrick Willis might be the leader of the 49ers' defense, but Justin Smith is the heart and soul of it.
The elder of San Francisco's dreaded Smith duo on defense, Justin Smith brings a versatility to the defensive line that is frightening regardless of where he lines up.
Able to line up at either defensive tackle or end, Smith's one constant is the destruction he brings. You won’t see it in his stats—three sacks and 47 tackles in limited action last season—but the proof is in the pudding. He clearly passes the eye test.
Smith is one of the rare players in the league who demands a double team every time he steps foot on the field. Even against a double team, however, the chaos he creates causes mismatches all over the field.
It’s no surprise that Aldon Smith was on pace for a record-breaking sack season before Justin went down.
A healthy Justin Smith is one of the most devastating players in the league, whether the stats show it or not. An offseason of rehab should do wonders for him. He is what elevates the 49ers from contenders to Super Bowl favorites.
Agree with the list? Maybe not? Sound off in the comments below!