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NFL Pro Bowl 2014: Analyzing San Francisco 49ers' League-Leading 8 Selections

Joe LevittContributor IIIDecember 28, 2013

NFL Pro Bowl 2014: Analyzing San Francisco 49ers' League-Leading 8 Selections

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    49ers captains Justin Smith (No. 94) and Patrick Willis (No. 52) head San Francisco's Pro Bowl selections.
    49ers captains Justin Smith (No. 94) and Patrick Willis (No. 52) head San Francisco's Pro Bowl selections.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    The 2014 Pro Bowl voters awarded the San Francisco 49ers with an NFL-leading eight selections to football’s annual all-star showcase.

    Team captains Justin Smith and Patrick Willis lead a group that also features NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati and Joe Staley.

    Every one of these 49ers selected to the starting roster is a multiple-time winner.

    All told, San Francisco boasts 28 career selections among the eight starters invited this year.

    But the usual questions over yearly Pro Bowl invitees remain (even with the new “unconferenced” format).

    Were all eight 49ers deserving of this honor? Were there any worthy players left behind?

    Including alternates Anquan Boldin, Alex Boone, Andy Lee, Eric Reid, C.J. Spillman and Donte Whitner, is this a thorough and representative list of Pro Bowl-quality 49ers?

    Let’s break it down.

     

    Note: NFL.com provides all player and league statistics. Any advanced metrics come courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

NaVorro Bowman, Inside Linebacker

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    49ers NaVorro Bowman races off with the playoff-sealing pick-six against Atlanta in Week 16.
    49ers NaVorro Bowman races off with the playoff-sealing pick-six against Atlanta in Week 16.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    NaVorro Bowman leads the 49ers and ranks second in the NFL with 135 tackles this year.

    The two-time Pro Bowler also has one fumble recovery and a career-high three forced fumbles, four sacks, eight pass breakups and one interception-return touchdown.

    Pro Football Focus currently grades him as the No. 1 inside linebacker (15.8). He has positive ratings in pass rush, coverage and run defense.

    Bowman’s mark of 9.7 in the former category is nearly double that of his next closest competitor.

    San Francisco’s leading tackler performs at an elite level in all duties asked of his position. He generates pressure, defends the run from sideline to sideline and can match up with any running back, tight end or would-be pass-catcher in his coverage area.

    In short, Bowman is every bit deserving of this Pro Bowl nod.

    Just don’t expect him to tackle or cover one of his teammates in this newly formatted all-star game.

    “Yeah, that would probably be a weird thing and I might not tackle [Frank Gore or Vernon Davis],” said Bowman during an interview with 49ers.com. 

    “Just let him score and get his yards or whatever.”

    Hey—it’s not like he would be violating a contractual obligation or anything.

Ahmad Brooks, Outside Linebacker

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    Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (No. 55) chases down Robert Griffin III for one of his two sacks on Monday Night Football.
    Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (No. 55) chases down Robert Griffin III for one of his two sacks on Monday Night Football.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Ahmad Brooks earned his first starting Pro Bowl selection and second overall (2013 alternate).

    The 49ers outside linebacker has compiled 57 tackles, one forced fumble and one interception. He has also set career-best marks with 8.5 sacks and seven pass breakups.

    Aside from eight penalties and 12 missed tackles, Brooks is extremely solid all the way around.

    He sets the edge as well as any backer in the league and rushes the passer with great proficiency. Pro Football Focus puts him in the top 10 for run defense, as well.

    And despite being targeted just 13 times, Brooks has forced a lowly 51.6 rating for quarterbacks throwing into his coverage area.

    Teammate Aldon Smith is without question a superior pass-rusher. But Brooks has played a full season and still remains the more complete 3-4 OLB.

    A humble and team-first mentality further solidifies Brooks’ case (qualities that certainly have rubbed off on Smith this year).

    Per 49ers.com:

    It feels good, especially to know that you’re one of the top players in the NFL. A lot of credit needs to go to our coaches and the guys in this locker room. We are accountable to each other every day and I think that helps bring out the best in all of us. I’m happy to be a part of it.

    Credit Brooks with a notch in the “deserving” column.

Vernon Davis, Tight End

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    Vernon Davis burns Buccaneers safety Mark Barron for a 52-yard touchdown.
    Vernon Davis burns Buccaneers safety Mark Barron for a 52-yard touchdown.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Vernon Davis sits fourth in the NFL and second among pass-catchers with 12 touchdowns.

    New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is the only player with more scores through the air (15).

    Graham also plays with quarterback Drew Brees in one of the NFL’s pass-happiest offenses.

    Davis, on the other hand, served as the sole downfield target for the 49ers for the majority of 2013. Boldin worked mostly underneath and was the only other viable receiving option for Colin Kaepernick until Michael Crabtree returned in Week 13.

    Point being, Davis produced the league’s eighth-highest average per reception (16.4) and second-most touchdown catches despite being the lone deep threat in a run-first system.

    He also accomplished that feat in essentially 13.5 games due to injury.

    The reputable minds at Pro Football Focus qualify Davis as tops among tight ends with a catch rate of 47.8 on passes of 20-plus yards downfield.

    But most of all, No. 85 is unrivaled in the way he matches his comprehensive skill set with gridiron production.

    Speed, hands, route running and even blocking—Davis is the best of the best.

    Oh, and he also became, per the 49ers' website, the "first tight end in NFL history to register at least 12 touchdowns or more in two different seasons."

    That seems worthy enough of a Pro Bowl invitation.

Frank Gore, Running Back

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    Running back Frank Gore (No. 21) runs for a chunk of his team-leading 97 yards against the Falcons.
    Running back Frank Gore (No. 21) runs for a chunk of his team-leading 97 yards against the Falcons.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    What can you say—No. 21 continues serving as the heart and soul of the 49ers offense.

    Frank Gore is in the midst of a franchise-record seventh 1,000-yard campaign in 2013.

    He also ranks seventh in the NFL with 1,114 yards rushing and fourth with nine scores on the ground.

    Only Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins has more than Gore’s nine gains of 20 or more yards. But Gore sits above Morris overall with a higher breakaway rate of 35.6 for big-play yardage.

    The same stat geniuses at Pro Football Focus also recognize Gore as the second-most proficient blocker at the running back position. His 97.9 pass-blocking efficiency and four total pressures allowed (zero sacks) fall behind only Maurice Jones-Drew.

    San Francisco’s all-time bell-cow remains one of the best at his crafts.

    His physical, low-to-the-ground and contact-welcoming running style is uncanny. His football intelligence is unmatched.

    The No. 3 rushing offense wouldn’t exist without Gore. And the NFL knew it.

    Welcome, Frank, to your third-consecutive and fifth-overall Pro Bowl.

    Via 49ers.com:

    I appreciate it a whole lot…You play this game to get respect. And I know I try my best every Sunday to get the respect I deserve. I’m happy that they see it. Like I said, it’s a blessing…Especially all the negative talk everybody’s been talking about all season about my age…And God willing every time I get the opportunity to touch the field, I try my best to go 100 percent.

    Like a fine wine…

Mike Iupati, Guard

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    49ers left guard Mike Iupati (No. 77) has not adequately protected quarterback Colin Kaepernick this season.
    49ers left guard Mike Iupati (No. 77) has not adequately protected quarterback Colin Kaepernick this season.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Unfortunately, not all 49ers are deserving of this all-star invitation.

    Mike Iupati has not performed to the level of his former Pro Bowl and All-Pro status.

    He currently rates as Pro Football Focus’ No. 33 guard. His negative-5.9 in pass blocking, including two sacks and 21 total pressures allowed in only 11 starts, rank in the bottom 25 (out of 79).

    For perspective, Iupati surrendered that same number in 2012. That number, however, was spread across 16 starts.

    Even with his positive-6.1 grade in run blocking, the 49ers' fourth-year mauler simply isn’t the same top-five guard, let alone Pro Bowl lineman in 2013 (see: positive-20.7 in 2012).

    Iupati himself said, via 49ers.com, he must “do better this year and next year.”

    It’s fair to say that fans of the Red and Gold expect more from this dominant road-grader of seasons past.

     

    More Deserving Left Guards: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles; Josh Sitton, Green Bay Packers

Justin Smith, Interior Lineman

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    49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (No. 99) looks on as Justin Smith sacks Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
    49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (No. 99) looks on as Justin Smith sacks Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Note: The NFL lumps 3-4 defensive ends into the interior lineman category for Pro Bowl considerations.

     

    This selection is, by far, the most problematic of the bunch.

    We’ll begin with the good.

    Now with the aid of both of his arms, Justin Smith is back to most of his usual trench-dominating antics.

    Smith has generated 6.5 sacks and 51.5 total pressures through 15 games following offseason triceps surgery. He is just two away from his career high in the former category.

    The seemingly invincible 34-year-old has created both his own quarterback takedowns and facilitated for others by occupying multiple blockers.

    Aldon Smith’s 8.5 sacks and 50.5 pressures in just 10 games is pure testament to that. The same goes for his top-five rating against the run and San Francisco’s fifth-ranked rushing defense as a team.

    However, the elder Smith hasn’t consistently been the same run-stuffer himself.

    His negative grades conferred by Pro Football Focus in Weeks 2, 3, 6, 8, 12, 13 and 14 override his positive marks earned in Weeks 1, 5, 7, 10, 11 and 16.

    Owning the trenches against the Packers, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints cannot dismiss losing efforts versus the Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.

    At the very least if a Pro Bowl selection is on the line.

    In the end, Smith remains an exceptional player. He is fundamental to the 49ers' entire defense.

    That said, other 3-4 defensive ends are more qualified for this particular honor.

     

    More Deserving: Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals; Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets

Joe Staley, Tackle

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    Joe Staley is revered as one of the premier left tackles in all of football.
    Joe Staley is revered as one of the premier left tackles in all of football.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Shall we return to the positive side of things?

    Joe Staley received his third-consecutive invitation for all the right reasons.

    The 49ers' prized left tackle continually operates as the league’s preeminent blindside protector. His meager 18 total pressures allowed (four sacks) are far and away the fewest at his position.

    Colin Kaepernick certainly stays upright in a comfortable pocket more often than not.

    And, to be sure, even the quarterback would acknowledge that the two sacks and four hurries he experienced over Weeks 14 and 15 were products of an MCL-hobbled Staley.

    As for run blocking, some of Frank Gore and Kaepernick’s most productive ground gains have come courtesy of Staley’s phenomenal top-three work.

    The duo’s collective four rushing touchdowns in Week 8 serve as one of many Staley-empowered examples.

    When it comes to Gore, though, the award-winning lineman doesn’t take any credit.

    “Frank’s one of the best running backs to play in the NFL,” replied Staley in an interview with 49ers.com.

    “He’s a Hall of Famer. He makes us look good.”

    And good you are, Mr. Staley—Pro Bowl good.

Patrick Willis, Inside Linebacker

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    49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis handled Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in coverage earlier this season.
    49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis handled Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in coverage earlier this season.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Does a linebacker make the 2014 Pro Bowl because he’s made the previous six?

    No—the linebacker makes it because he remains a transcendent, Hall of Fame player.

    Patrick Willis became the first 49er in franchise history to earn Pro Bowl honors in each of his first seven seasons.

    He did it under a stat line featuring 98 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, one pass breakup and a team-high seven tackles for loss in only 13 games.

    And speaking of tackles, no inside backer with at least 750 defensive snaps has missed fewer than Willis’ measly six takedowns.

    And since we’re on the subject of Pro Football Focus, no other player at this position rocks a high-positive rating in the categories of pass rush, coverage, run defense and penalties (No. 3 overall).

    Wouldn’t you know—Willis has not lost a step in year seven.

    He might sacrifice a few statistical gains across the board, but it’s nearly always to the benefit of NaVorro Bowman and the 49ers as a whole.

    It merely solidifies Bowman’s and his status as the NFL’s supreme duo at ILB, as elites of the league’s No. 3 total defense.

    They are carbon copies of each other and deserve simultaneous all-star recognition for however long they’re on the field at the same time.

    One could certainly make the case for the Arizona Cardinals' Karlos Dansby and tremendous rookie Kiko Alonso of the Buffalo Bills. A combined eight interceptions, 39 quarterback pressures and solid play versus the run are sufficient qualifications.

    Yet, a foursome of Bowman, Willis, Luke Kuechly and Vontaze Burfict (even though he’s technically 4-3 weak-side linebacker) is absolutely top-notch.

    How does all this resonate with No. 52 himself?

    It’s truly a blessing. I couldn’t do it without my teammates and my coaches. I have the best teammates in the world and I love playing with those guys. Again, I…thank my teammates, the fans who voted for me, the other players who voted for me and the coaches. I just thank everybody who had a part in it.

    Embodying total humility from day one all the way through Pro Bowl No. 7—Willis is an all-time great in the making.

Pro Bowl Alternates

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    49ers Donte Whitner forces the ball away from Buccaneers running back Brian Leonard with a big hit.
    49ers Donte Whitner forces the ball away from Buccaneers running back Brian Leonard with a big hit.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Note: Suggested replacements are derived from the list of players not selected to the starting roster. They could very well earn a Pro Bowl berth down the line as an alternate for their respective team.

     

    Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver

    Boldin is a fine choice as an alternate wideout.

    He leads the 49ers with 76 catches for 1,030 yards (No. 7 in NFL) and ranks second to Vernon Davis with six touchdowns.

    Pro Football Focus grades him as the No. 11 overall receiver with the third-highest average for yards per route run (2.40).

    The last time Boldin produced these numbers was 2008—also the year of his most recent Pro Bowl nod.

     

    Alex Boone, Guard

    Like his left-guard counterpart, Boone hasn’t performed to the level of his top-five status of 2012.

    He went from a positive-22.9 rating with just 20 pressures allowed last year, to a 1.5 overall grade and negative-2.6 in pass blocking in 2013, per Pro Football Focus.

    Boone still paves consistent openings for Frank Gore and Company. But his work in pass protection falls well short of his success as a run blocker.

     

    More Deserving: Larry Warford, Detroit Lions

     

    Andy Lee, Punter

    The three-time Pro Bowler and First-Team All Pro is a well-deserved alternate candidate.

    Lee ranks third in average yards (48.6), fourth in net (41.9) and No. 1 with a 5.60 maximum hang time.

    He is one of the most directionally precise and consistent punters in the NFL today.

     

    Eric Reid, Safety

    The 49ers' rookie free safety has been a tremendous upgrade over free-agent departure Dashon Goldson.

    Reid is tied for third among his positional mates with four interceptions. He also has given up just two touchdowns (third-fewest) and a 66.9 passer rating (top 20) in his coverage area.

    Credit No. 35 with 10 pass breakups and two fumble recoveries, as well.

    One prominent issue with Reid is tackling. His 13 missed opportunities are fifth-highest from the safety position.

    Receiving a Pro Bowl invitation as an alternate may have been a bit too premature.

    Reid’s time will come soon enough.

     

    More Deserving: Devin McCourty, New England Patriots

     

    C.J. Spillman, Special Teamer

    Spillman has amassed the fourth-most tackles on special teams in the NFL (13).

    The quick-footed gunner routinely makes the initial stop on the 49ers' much-improved coverage unit in 2013.

    That said, Spillman has missed two tackles and has received a negative-8.0 by Pro Football Focus for his work on punts.

    Michael Wilhoite, fellow special teams ace for San Francisco, actually rates better in the relevant metrics.

    He sports an overall positive-7.6 grade (sixth-highest), including the third-most tackles (14) and zero missed opportunities.

    Wilhoite is especially effective on kickoffs.

     

    More Deserving: Michael Wilhoite, San Francisco 49ers

     

    Donte Whitner, Safety

    Last but certainly not least, Whitner deserved a starting roster spot on the 2014 Pro Bowl.

    Pro Football Focus’ No. 5 ranked safety has given up a scant 52.2 completion percentage, two touchdowns and a 66.2 passer rating in his coverage area.

    Whitner ranks third on the 49ers with 69 tackles and second with 12 pass breakups. He also has three tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery to his name.

    The 2012 starter definitely earned similar honors one year later.

    On a final note, Whitner is entirely more qualified than Kam Chancellor, who made the squad as a strong safety for the Seattle Seahawks.

    Chancellor grades out as No. 11 overall—well below Whitner’s top-five status.

    Will this omission foster even more enmity between these division rivals in the playoffs?

    Looks like Whitner will serve as the source for that information come January.

     

    Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16

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