Offseason San Francisco 49ers Player Power Rankings
The largest weekend of the offseason came to a close earlier this month with the final selection in the 2014 NFL draft, leaving the San Francisco 49ers roster largely set in stone for the 2014 season. Barring a major injury or unforeseen blockbuster, the key plays of the coming season will most assuredly come from the players that can currently be found on the roster.
As minicamps and OTAs get underway, it's reasonable to ask which starters will make the biggest contributions in 2014. With a roster this loaded, however, ranking the starters is almost like splitting hairs.
On the other hand, this is not a roster without holes. There are several question marks at critical positions for this 49ers squad as well as aging stars with debatable gas left in the tank.
This list is a projection of what's to come, but it is also a reflection of the past. Last season's performances will certainly play a large factor in these rankings, but the top spots on this list reflect the players who will most likely lead the 49ers to a successful season in 2014.
As the inaugural season at Levi's Stadium kicks off, 2014 signals the transition of eras in San Francisco. This list is a preview of that line of thought, with a new start clearly on the rise.
TBD: Aldon Smith, OLB
To be perfectly clear, linebacker Aldon Smith is an All-Pro pass-rusher with production that only historical comparison can put into context. His ranking off of the list isn't blind; it's merely realistic.
Smith plead no contest to misdemeanor DUI and three felony weapons charges last week, per Tracey Kaplan of the San Jose Mercury News. His sentencing is set for July 25.
As Kaplan notes, there is a very real chance that Smith could be behind bars during the upcoming season. In the event that the linebacker escapes jail time, the league could still suspend him for any length of time.
Smith's importance and ability would unquestionably have him in the top five of this list. Unfortunately for fans and the team, his talent may be held off of the field in 2014.
TBD: NaVorro Bowman, ILB
The above picture features the unfortunate last sighting for linebacker NaVorro Bowman, but San Francisco's All-Pro enforcer should return in time for the home stretch.
After injuring his knee in gruesome fashion during the NFC Championship Game, Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com reports that Bowman is ahead of schedule in his rehab. While a midseason return still seems most likely, Bowman isn't willing to count himself out of the 49ers' plans just yet.
Still, it's impossible to project when Bowman will return to action or how effective he will be as he works his way back. Until the linebacker's road to recovery clears up, it's difficult to rank just how much of an impact he can have for this year's team.
No. 23: RB Carlos Hyde
Running back Frank Gore is essentially immortal at the top of the depth chart, but the 49ers do have an impressive stable waiting behind him. The most notable of the reserves is rookie Carlos Hyde, who should fit nicely into a needed role during his first pro campaign.
Well-built at 6'0" and 230 pounds, Hyde fits the bruising style of a goal-line back, as noted in his NFL.com combine profile:
Superb contact balance and finishing strength – does not go down easily and can barrel through arm tackles. Extremely powerful short-yardage/goal-line runner...A big, strong, powerful, NFL feature back who carried the Buckeyes' offense as a senior.
With running back Anthony Dixon now in Buffalo, Hyde could see his chances in the red zone this season. Neither Kendall Hunter nor LaMichael James fits the profile of a goal-line finisher, which could be Hyde's big break onto the field.
No. 22: C Daniel Kilgore
Starting center Jonathan Goodwin was not retained for the upcoming season, leaving backup Daniel Kilgore as his presumptive replacement. A three-year contract extension in February seemed to solidify Kilgore's ascension into the first unit.
Well, not exactly.
Since then, the 49ers spent a third-round pick on USC center Marcus Martin, who CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco reports is looking to compete from the start. Kilgore has also never started a game in his three professional seasons.
Kilgore does have three years of experience with the 49ers' playbook in his favor, however. His uncertain role keeps him low on this list, but he appears to have the inside track on the starting job for now.
No. 21: CB/S Jimmie Ward
Selected by the 49ers with the No. 30 overall pick in the draft, rookie defensive back Jimmie Ward is expected to contribute as soon as he gets back on the field.
According to Maiocco, Ward will be held out until training camp after undergoing surgery to repair a fracture in his foot. Once healthy, Ward should be expected to play a key role as a nickel cornerback in his first season.
This low ranking is not to insinuate that Ward will not live up to his draft status. As with Hyde, Ward simply has a lot to prove before he is ranked over proven professional players.
However, the 49ers do figure to feature plenty of nickel formations due to the pass-happy nature of the league, which should give Ward ample opportunities to make a difference.
No. 20: CB Chris Culliver
Despite missing all of 2013 after an offseason knee injury, cornerback Chris Culliver is expected to start this season healthy, per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com.
Off-field issues aside, Culliver still has plenty of question marks as his health continues to improve. After all, with just six NFL starts to his name and a full year removed from action, what can we expect from the controversial corner in 2014?
Culliver was last seen on the field during a forgettable performance in Super Bowl XLVII, but his play cannot be defined by one game. As Williamson points out, the 49ers like what they have seen from the forrmer third-round pick.
The 49ers are gambling that Culliver will prove to realize his impressive talent, which would rocket him up this list by this time next year.
No. 19: DT Glenn Dorsey,
Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey was impressive last season after taking over for injured lineman Ian Williams in the second game of the season. With two sacks and 41 tackles in 13 starts, Dorsey stepped in and stepped up in an unfamiliar defensive assignment.
As Curtis Crabtree of Pro Football Talk notes, Williams did beat out Dorsey for the job heading into last season. Dorsey's performance in 2013 will certainly make that decision harder this year, however, as Dorsey is now the more proven commodity.
Of course, the 49ers are forced out of their base set often, which takes Dorsey off of the field in order to allow for more help in the secondary.
At the end of the day, the nose tackle is pivotal to the success of the 49ers' base 3-4 alignment. While Dorsey and Williams may likely split time in 2014, both should be prepared to make a solid impact this season.
No. 18: WR Stevie Johnson
In what amounted to one of the bigger trades of the 2014 NFL draft, the 49ers acquired wide receiver Stevie Johnson from the Buffalo Bills for a 2015 draft choice.
Set to be the new No. 3 receiver behind current starters Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, Johnson brings production far beyond that of a typical third option. Johnson topped 1,000 yards in three of his six seasons with the Bills, which included 301 total receptions and 28 touchdowns.
That said, 2013 was a bit of a down year for Buffalo's top target, as he totaled just 597 yards and three touchdowns. Both of these totals represented Johnson's lowest since 2009.
Stable quarterback play should help the Bay Area native bounce back, but his complementary role holds him down on this list. Johnson will be a significant upgrade for this offense, but his potential impact can't measure up to most of the other starters.
No. 17: FB Bruce Miller
Fullback Bruce Miller injured his shoulder late in 2013, which forced him to miss the end of the regular season and the entire playoffs. While not particularly known as a runner, his blocking ability can't be understated as a complement to running back Frank Gore.
New wide receiver Stevie Johnson's presence will, hopefully, reduce the 49ers' dependence on Miller in the passing game. Even without the ball in his hands, however, Miller is a key contributor in the power running game.
So why is Miller ranked so low? With wideouts Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Johnson in the fold, the 49ers should be able to spread the field more in 2014, most likely at Miller's expense.
Based purely on merit, Miller is a brilliant young player. Fullback is an under-appreciated art, however, which leaves Miller as a de facto odd man out.
No. 16: CB Tramaine Brock
After signing a four-year contract extension during the 2013 season, cornerback Tramaine Brock appears to be firmly entrenched atop the 49ers depth chart. With inexperienced corners in Chris Culliver and a slew of late draft picks behind him, there seems to be little keeping Brock from locking down the No. 1 job.
The issue with this unproven depth is that Brock also has just seven career starts to his name, which all came last season.
Brock broke out last season as a reliable performer, but the San Francisco Chronicle's Ann Killon still sees reason for concern. One solid season is tough to count on for such a key role, especially for a defense that maintains so much talent at other positions.
For the 49ers to succeed against top quarterbacks, the gamble on Brock must pay off.
No. 15: OG Alex Boone
Guard Alex Boone has been in the news recently due to his absence from 49ers OTAs, as he is reportedly seeking a new contract, per Williamson.
Contract gripes aside, Boone has stepped up as a solid lineman since entering the starting lineup in 2012. Starting all 32 games since that time, the 6'7" guard has helped power one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
Unfortunately for Boone, the 49ers have plenty of young talent waiting in the wings. With reserve linemen Daniel Kilgore, Jonathan Martin and rookie Brandon Thomas all being possibilities to replace him in the lineup, Boone's contract demands are likely to go unanswered.
While a very valuable player in his own right, the reality is that Boone is the fourth-best player on this offensive line.
No. 14: DE Ray McDonald
Rarely flashy on the stat sheet, defensive lineman Ray McDonald is one of the more underrated members of this vaunted 49ers defense.
According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, McDonald is fully recovered from offseason surgery on his bicep. While he was slowed at the end of last season, having McDonald at full strength will be critical for a front seven with availability questions surrounding linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.
McDonald has topped 3.5 sacks just once in his seven seasons, but his presence on the line allows space for a playmaking group of linebackers. Pass-rushing is also as important as ever for this 49ers team, as they feature an unproven secondary that will need time to get in sync.
No. 13: OT Anthony Davis
Offensive tackle Anthony Davis has started every game since the 49ers selected him in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. Davis will be held out until the start of training camp this year after offseason shoulder surgery, per Barrows, but he will be ready for the start of the season.
Davis has rebounded nicely after a rocky early career, offering solid blocking in both passing and rushing situations. Still just 24 years old entering his fifth NFL season, the former Rutgers standout is finally living up to his lofty draft promise.
Still, Davis is overlooked due to his All-Pro linemates, tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati, but he is still a great player at a key position.
No. 12: S Antoine Bethea
The 49ers made one big-time addition in this year's free agency period, inking former Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea to a four-year contract.
Replacing Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner is no small task, but Bethea is an established player who should be up to the challenge. A two-time Pro Bowler in his own right, the veteran defensive back also won a Super Bowl during his eight seasons in Indy.
Bethea's last Pro Bowl nod came in 2009, but his production has not fallen off. His 80 solo tackles in 2014 tied a career high, and he also added two interceptions and a sack.
Most importantly, Bethea hasn't missed a start since 2007, providing stable durability to a largely unproven secondary.
No. 11: WR Anquan Boldin
It's hard to imagine wide receiver Anquan Boldin outside of the top 10 after such a productive season in 2013, but his opportunities should be expected to drop off this year.
On one hand, Boldin put together a throwback campaign with 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns. On the other, wide receiver Michael Crabtree is back for the entire season this time around, with newcomer Stevie Johnson also entering the fold.
Even if the 49ers spread out the offense to feature more three-receiver sets, the team still has to find passes for tight end Vernon Davis as well. Boldin showed last year that he still has some gas in the tank, but this is still a run-first team at its core.
With those restrictions in mind as well the fact that he will be playing a No. 2 role for an entire season, Boldin's individual impact will most likely decrease in 2014.
No. 10: RB Frank Gore
Now 31 years old with nearly 2,200 carries under his belt, there's no shame in running back Frank Gore taking the No. 10 spot on this list. After all, many running backs are out of the league by age 31, whereas Gore is still a top-10 contributor for his team.
As we alluded to early on with rookie running back Carlos Hyde, the 49ers have selected running backs early and often in recent drafts. Gore seemed to slow down as the season wore on in 2013, culminating in his 14-yard performance on 11 carries in the NFC Championship Game.
It should be noted, however, that Gore suffered a broken finger at some point during that final game, per Austin Pentis of 49ers.com.
Even still, the 49ers must reduce the workload on Gore to have him at his best come playoff time. Making use of reserve backs such as Hyde, Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore will limit Gore's overall impact, but it will keep him fresh for the stretch run.
No. 9: S Eric Reid
This may be jumping the gun after just one season, but safety Eric Reid's rookie campaign was nothing short of spectacular. With four interceptions and 91 total tackles in 16 starts, Reid filled in more than admirably for departed safety Dashon Goldson.
In earning a Pro Bowl nod, Reid is now the leader of a mostly inexperienced secondary. Newcomer Antoine Bethea is more established as a veteran presence, but Reid's recent success and experience in the system makes him the star of a questionable unit.
If Reid can grow from his first season and take the next step, the 49ers are looking at a future star for years to come.
No. 8: QB Colin Kaepernick
This may be a lofty ranking for a player coming off of such an up-and-down season, but the overall package must be taken into account for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
With a 17-6 record since Kaepernick since took over the starting job midway through 2012, the 49ers have clearly grown with their young quarterback. With his fast start and early playoff success, it's easy for fans to forget just how rare this level of play is from a 26-year-old quarterback.
As Kaepernick enters the final year of his rookie contract, the San Francisco brain trust wants the signal-caller extended before the season starts, per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. They understand how vital consistent quarterback play is for this team.
Kaepernick will have to take the next step in 2014, but his contributions thus far shouldn't be understated. With additional weapons at his disposal and an aging ground game, this is the season for Kaepernick to truly break through.
No. 7: WR Michael Crabtree
An Achilles tendon injury kept wide receiver Michael Crabtree out of 11 games last season, but 2012 had shown some promise from the former first-round pick.
Crabtree's last full season resulted in career highs across the board, with 85 catches, 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. The 2014 season is a contract year for Crabtree, however, which should motivate the receiver to prove his consistency for a big deal in the offseason.
After all, the 49ers are no stranger to Crabtree holding out in contract negotiations.
This could very well be Crabtree's final season in red and gold, though, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and guard Mike Iupati also entering the final year of their respective contracts. His chemistry with Kaepernick was well documented in 2012, but a repeat performance this season could spell the end for No. 15.
No. 6: OLB Ahmad Brooks
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks was another first-time Pro Bowler in 2013, but the veteran pass-rusher has been a valuable contributor since joining the 49ers in 2009. Career highs last season in sacks (8.5) and total tackles (60) further that point.
Another career year would help the 49ers a lot, as linebacker Aldon Smith's uncertain status creates a need for Brooks to step up once again in 2014.
Should Smith miss any time with his ongoing legal troubles, others will have to pick up some slack. If last season is any indication, however, Brooks should be up to the task of keeping pressure on the opposing quarterback.
No. 5: OG Mike Iupati
As alluded to in the discussion for receiver Michael Crabtree, All-Pro guard Mike Iupati is also entering the final year of his rookie contract in 2014. Quickly established as one of the top run-blockers in the NFL, Iupati has been a big reason for the 49ers' success on the ground.
Unfortunately, Iupati's production is most likely worth much more money than the 49ers will be able to pay, as noted by Barrows in an interview with Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe.
Barrows said in a separate report that Iupati is back at full strength after a broken leg that ended his season. Contract situation aside, the big guard should be back to his brilliant level of play in time for the new season to start.
Iupati is a two-time Pro Bowler and a huge part of the offensive line, but quarterback Colin Kaepernick's contract may very well get in the way. For this season, however, it won't detract from what the big man can do on the field.
No. 4: DL Justin Smith
You can't measure defensive lineman Justin Smith's contribution to the 49ers solely based upon his five straight Pro Bowls and an All-Pro nod. They tell the story well, but they don't do enough justice to convey the entire package.
Smith had a typically strong season in 2013, starting all 16 games while racking up 6.5 sacks and 49 tackles.
The stat sheet, however, isn't where "Cowboy" makes his mark. His ability to control the opposing line is invaluable to the pass-rushing linebackers that make plays behind him. With linebacker Aldon Smith possibly sidelined, Smith's ability to assist other players will be more important that ever before.
At 34 years old, Smith's days are likely numbered on the football field. Given his pride and ability, it's a near guarantee that he'll attempt to go out on top.
No. 3: TE Vernon Davis
After a slow start to his relationship with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, tight end Vernon Davis exploded back into prominence in 2013. Not that Davis has necessarily disappointed in recent seasons, but his 13 touchdowns last season tied a career high from 2009.
Davis also truly emerged as the deep threat his speed allows for, averaging 16.3 yards per catch as more than a safety valve for Kaepernick. That chemistry should bode will for the upcoming season, as Davis will now have to compete for attention with three legitimate wide receivers.
With wideouts Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson all in the fold, Davis' ability in the red zone will be key to stand out from the pack.
Davis has always had All-Pro talent, and now he finally has the quarterback and the system to take full advantage of it.
No. 2: OT Joe Staley
Offensive lineman are far too often overlooked in the modern NFL, but 49ers left tackle Joe Staley is a rare breed. Playing one of the most critical positions in the sport, Staley was named the No. 4 left tackle in the NFL by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller in this year's iteration of the B/R NFL 1000 series.
For the 49ers, Staley's balance as both a run-blocker and pass protector are invaluable. San Francisco relies on the power running game as much as any team in the league, and Staley plays a large part in that equation.
Blocking for a young, mobile quarterback like Colin Kaepernick is surely a lot to manage as well.
Overall, Staley's ability and position put him near the top of this list. It's tough to see the offensive line functioning so well without him, which makes him truly invaluable to the core of the offensive philosophy of this team.
No. 1: ILB Patrick Willis
Inside linebacker Patrick Willis finished No. 2 in the rankings at his position by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller in this year's B/R NFL 1000 series. The only player considered to be in his class was sidelined teammate NaVorro Bowman, as discussed much earlier in this article.
With Bowman out for the early going, there's never been a greater need for Willis to step up as the heart and soul of the defense. A team captain and clear leader, Willis' seven Pro Bowls and five All-Pro selections clearly show that he is up to the challenge.
Willis is one of the best athletes in the NFL, with instincts to match and a unique blend of defensive prowess. With so many defensive roles in flux due to departures and injuries, the 49ers will need Willis now more than ever.
There's no understating Willis' status as a phenomenal NFL player with the makings of a Hall of Fame career. At 29 years old, we're witnessing the final years of his prime, which should be appreciated as such.
Defense is the core of this era of 49ers football. Willis represents that with talent and class that set a high standard for both the team and the entire league.
All statistics and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless otherwise attributed.
Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can be found on Twitter by following @ByTomSmeaton.
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