It's hard to believe we are knee-deep in the 2013 NFL season, currently staring Week 7 straight in the face. For the San Francisco 49ers, it has been an up-and-down roller coaster filled with twists and turns, really making it seem like they've had a lot longer season than anyone else.
Transactions, injuries, an identity crisis, surprise performers, team lows and career highs have all been peppered into this year. It has really been a mixed bag, which has slowed everyone’s roll on the Super Bowl talk. Right now the reigning NFC champions are set on taking it one week at a time.
During this quirky beginning, in what is officially Jim Harbaugh’s third NFL season as a head coach (2013), the 49ers have had a different look to them. A lot of the fresh personalities brought in by the new regime have really settled into their roles, while other returning players have broken ground.
With six games in the books, it seems like a good opportunity to assess the talent on the roster and look at who has been most pivotal to the team’s success so far. In this piece, we will rank the top five MVPs for the 2013 49ers.
The ranking system is predicated on:
- Consistency: Always a mark of a player deserving of recognition. Which players are showing up every week?
- Impact: With the way this season has gone, the 49ers have needed players to rise up. Which guys have answered the call to duty, affecting games in a big way?
- Importance: The Niners' roster continues to wear thin. Which of the following players could San Francisco not afford to lose?
- Aura: The intangibles of an athlete always affect the perception of them. Which player is stealing hearts with his play?
If Greg Roman grew up in the old Wild West, let's just say he would not get too far on horseback, seeing as how he is someone who is known to pull back on the reins a little too much. Whether it is playing things close to the chest or being overly conservative, this slow, steady approach has the 49ers teetering between the win and loss columns each week.
So, for however superb a run designer he is, Roman is not a consistent game-planner or play-caller.
It is his weakness.
The 49ers have one of the more spectacularly creative and higher-volume playbooks in the league today. We know because we’ve seen the plays. But for whatever reason, Roman has not been able to find a groove calling plays from the booth. There have been flashes of it, but the consistency is not there.
On certain downs and distances, the offensive coordinator will just make inexplicable decisions—unjustifiable calls that either look like give-up plays or ones that show that Roman did not have a firm grasp on the situation. It has hurt San Francisco’s ability to sustain drives and score in the red zone.
Moreover, outside of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, he has completely failed to integrate any supporting weapons in this offense for six straight weeks, most notably in the passing game. The lack of production aside from the two name players is baffling.
Even despite injuries, there have been no attempts to get new faces the ball on screens, clear outs, pick plays or any sort of quick-hitting, one-read routes. They’ve even gotten away from the once-successful bunch sets.
Now, it is mostly five- and seven-step drops with the patterns 10 yards or deeper.
While this is what fans were clamoring for a few years ago, it is not a formula to be used on first, second and third down. These shots work best when they are set up by the run game and high-percentage passes.
For this reason, Greg Roman is slipping and needs to emphasize more of a return to the traditional West Coast offense.
Chris Biderman of Niners Digest agrees:
You guys think Greg Roman gets too cute with his play calling.— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) October 13, 2013
Losing starting nose tackle Ian Williams for the season with a broken ankle, followed by a torn biceps for Ray McDonald and now an injured Glenn Dorsey has not been easy for this San Francisco defensive line.
But it has continued to overcome. Why? It has great depth for one, but after that, look no further than All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith. The Cowboy is not a stats guy, unless you dig deep and look for pressures or sacks from a certain side of the defensive formation.
No, instead, Smith is about making everyone else around him better.
He sacrifices himself and uses his Herculean strength to effectively control the line of scrimmage, absorbing double-teams on a fairly consistent basis. Smith is the brains and brawn of the 49ers defensive line. It is so hard for teams to defeat this front because he is an unstoppable player and is so good at what he does.
Essentially, he frees up the linebackers to stop the run and rush the passer, while clogging lanes and hitting the quarterback himself. Time and time again, it is like swinging a wrecking ball at an aluminum garage door. He batters the competition, as illustrated by B/R's Aaron Nagler:
Justin Smith just blew up the A Gap like it insulted his mother.— Aaron Nagler (@Aaron_Nagler) September 16, 2013
Left to right, this 49ers offensive line has been second to none in both protecting the quarterback and getting dirty in the trenches. Looking around the NFL, there are not many units as complete as this one. The San Francisco offense is privileged enough to have this unit enabling it to win any given play.
It is a tremendous advantage, and one that should not go unrecognized in the team’s ever-evolving state. Had it not been for this resilient group of maulers up front, the 49ers would have a much more challenging time trying to insert new players and allowing them to develop.
They allow everything work, buying time for Colin Kaepernick in the pocket, while possessing the athleticism and awareness to stick with him if he improvises and bounces outside. This can be very trying for offensive lineman since they don’t have eyes in the back of their head.
But Joe Staley and Co. do quite well.
Collectively, they also go into utter beast mode, trucking entire defensive fronts over and over again. It is like a boxing match. They get squared up and go to work, wearing them down over the course of a game. And like a golden gloves matchup, it is very cerebral and technical.
It is a war of attrition that the San Francisco O-line has mastered. This group is one of the best in pro football and among the organization’s greatest assets, as NFL.com's Bucky Brooks points out:
The @49ers have finally gotten back to playing power football. Lots of "22" personnel and tight formations to allow O-Line to pound away— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) September 27, 2013
Defensive player or not, it is not a long shot to say that Eric Reid is entering the Rookie of the Year talks midway through 2013.
The last defensive player to achieve that? Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, formerly the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
But truth be told, Reid is playing lights out—as good as anyone right now. There are no valid post-draft knocks against him. The 49ers' starting free safety and heir apparent to a superstar, Dashon Goldson, is performing at a Pro Bowl level, and that is not an overstatement.
All of his college strengths—the hard-hitting, run support and leadership—have shown up, while his weaknesses have been eradicated.
When a rookie can step into the lineup and instantly make devoted fans forget about his predecessor, that speaks volumes. Especially when the man who came before him achieved so much and was held to such a high esteem.
Right now it is looking like he is already the strength of the secondary, racking up 27 tackles, one fumble recovery, three interceptions (54 yards) and five pass deflections. In six NFL games, Reid already has half as many interceptions as he did in 36 career games for LSU.
He has been a playmaker and tone-setter, much like No. 38 was, except he is more disciplined in coverage and his hits are legal. B/R's Matt Miller highlights Reid's outstanding form:
All Eric Reid does is make big plays. #49ers— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 13, 2013
This is by no means a slight to the mainstays in the defense—particularly Justin Smith and Patrick Willis—but it is hard to deny NaVorro Bowman has been the most valuable player on the Niners defense so far in 2013.
His statistics to date, which include 53 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, four pass deflections and two stuffs, really sum it up: He does it all. Bowman is not one-dimensional. He can track the ball-carrier, cover in space, and rush the passer, which really characterizes him as an all-around dominant defensive player.
Even though he has been recognized as a two-time AP All-Pro in his only seasons as a starter, and the talent has been on display, Bowman continues to make a case for himself as San Francisco’s best overall defender.
With the loss of Aldon Smith, who took on more responsibility? Bowman did. He answered the call to duty, evolving as a blitzer, providing pressure up the middle and even picking up a couple sacks.
When Patrick Willis was out with a groin injury, who captained the defense? Bowman did. He racked up a bulk of the tackles, made the calls and necessary adjustments on the field while covering the starting backs and tight ends in space.
His game is firing on all cylinders. The Mercury News' Tim Kawakami illustrates Bowman's stellar play:
Extra note: NaVorro Bowman had a relatively quiet (for him) day, but he's been the 49ers' best & most consistent player all season.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) October 14, 2013
How much does 40 speed and youth really matter for a running back?
He has managed to play at a high level, even now, and some might say that this is the best the running back has looked since 2006.
Time has been good to him. You could say the 49ers running back is aging like Benjamin Button.
He is the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher and has a higher yards-per-carry average than two of the tailbacks ahead of him (Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch). Gore also has only five fewer yards than Minnesota Vikings icon Adrian Peterson, who rumbled for 2,097 yards just last season.
After having a minimal role in the first couple weeks of the season, Gore has been totally unleashed, currently leading the league with 417 rushing yards since Week 3, per Bill Williamson of ESPN. The 49ers running back also leads the entire NFL in yards after contact since Week 4 (140, per ESPN State & Info).
So, he has given the 49ers incredible production, but more importantly, he is helping the team win.
Last week, Gore produced 41 of his 101 rushing yards on a key 18-play scoring drive against the Arizona Cardinals, coming through when the team had to have it, according to the team's official website. In his last four games, he averaged 7.5, 7.7, 4.8 and 4.0 yards per attempt and also has a team-high 21 first downs on the season.
He is carrying this offense right now, as illustrated by this tweet from the 49ers' PR department:
Lost in the hype of Jimmy Graham’s preposterous season for the New Orleans Saints and the rise of Jordan Cameron with the Cleveland Browns has been a longstanding hybrid tight end in hibernation just waiting to break out—and he has.
Even though he missed a game this season, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is on pace for 1,212 yards and 18 receiving touchdowns.
Theoretically, Davis could log his first career 1,000-yard season while reclaiming the NFL touchdown record for a tight end from New England Patriots juggernaut Rob Gronkowski (17). His 18.4 yards-per-catch average through the first six weeks is the highest it has ever been.
It is also 5.4 yards more than his career average.
Wait, there’s more. Perhaps the cause of it all is that Davis is now coming away with a whopping 21.7 percent of the targets this season, as opposed to last year, when he was only looked to 10.4 percent of the time in Colin Kaepernick’s regular-season starts, according to Rich Hribar of XNS Sports.
With Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out, and Anquan Boldin still very fresh in this offense and not always able to separate from defenders, Davis has stepped up in a big way. He has been Mr. Reliable for Kaepernick, able to be there for his quarterback in key situations.
All the while, he has emerged as the team’s best deep threat.
And with the fashion in which he has done it, Davis is proving to be a dominant player that teams have no answer for. Physically, he is in that majestic class with Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson. He is a mismatch—a true hybrid at his position with the ability to take over a game—on top of which, Davis maintains a selfless approach.
For example, he still provides a vigorous presence in the ground game.
When he is attached to the line of scrimmage and puts his head down, he helps set that edge and gets to the second level, which has allowed Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter to drive the ball a little deeper down the defense’s throat. His role in the rushing attack has been pivotal.
If the 49ers did not have Davis, they’d have nothing.