San Francisco 49ers: Picking Top Players from the 2014 Opponents
A corollary of having so much overall talent is that San Francisco doesn't have very many holes in its starting lineups. Only center Daniel Kilgore and slot corner Jimmie Ward are listed as question marks, and that’s more from their lack of experience and proof that they can perform at an NFL level. Not even the Seahawks, who have issues at both starting guard positions, can claim to have so few uncertainties in terms of their starting talent.
The 49ers, then, are happy with the roster with which they look to enter the 2014 season. But even the best roster could be improved.
To better understand what remaining weaknesses are left on the team, let’s take one standout player from each of San Francisco’s 13 opponents, add them to San Francisco’s roster and try to create the best lineup possible.
The rules are simple. We’re using 24 starters—adding in a third receiver and a nickel cornerback to represent the difference between the base and third down sets. You can only replace starters, so no taking Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, with one to start and the other to be the backup quarterback; you must pick one of the two.
Here’s my attempt.
Dallas Cowboys: RB DeMarco Murray
When DeMarco Murray is healthy, he’s one of the top rushers in the NFL. He’s averaged 4.95 yards per attempt, putting him fifth among all active players with at least 500 rushes. He’s a very good blocker and pass-catcher as well. He’s just a well-balanced player.
Of course, the issue with Murray is his injury history; he’s yet to play 16 games in a season, and the 217 carries he managed last season were the most of his career. Frank Gore has only had fewer than 217 carries twice in his NFL career—once in his rookie season and again in 2010 when he missed five games due to injury.
Replacing the 31-year-old Gore with a 26-year-old Pro Bowler makes sense, even though Murray’s not the best running back the 49ers will face. LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch will all test the 49ers front seven this season.
The Dallas Cowboys aren’t exactly overflowing with talent, however, so Murray was the best choice available.
Other players considered: WR Dez Bryant, OT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick
Chicago Bears: WR Brandon Marshall
Brandon Marshall is one of the elite receivers in the NFL and the best player on Chicago’s roster, making his selection something of a no-brainer.
While the 49ers have made significant improvements to their receiving corps with the addition of Stevie Johnson and Michael Crabtree’s return to health, bringing in a touchdown machine like Marshall would help any team in the NFL.
Marshall has gone over 100 receptions in a season five times in his career, succeeding with Denver, Miami and Chicago. His combination of size and speed allows him to fight through double-teams and dominate in the air.
Marshall’s not only a talented receiver, however. He achieved the highest blocking grade Pro Football Focus has ever given a wide receiver, as he significantly contributes even on rushing downs. He’s an all-around force and one of the best in the league at his position.
It’s good that the Chicago Bears have Marshall, as they have few other current starters who would actually make San Francisco’s existing lineups better.
Other players considered: C Roberto Garza, CB Tim Jennings, WR Alshon Jeffery
Arizona Cardinals: DE Calais Campbell
Calais Campbell is going to be a challenge for Joe Staley twice in 2014. In their two matchups last year, Campbell earned two sacks and five quarterback hurries in leading a ferocious Arizona Cardinals defense.
He’s not just a pass-rusher, though—Campbell’s an all-around stud as a 3-4 defensive end, making plays against the run just as often as he does in pass defense. The only better 3-4 defensive end last year, according to Pro Football Focus, was Houston's J.J. Watt, and that’s not a bad player to be slotted behind.
The 49ers are more than happy with their duo of Ray McDonald and Justin Smith at defensive end, but have already begun to look at players to eventually replace them, hence drafting Tank Carradine last season. The 27-year-old Campbell is more than what the 49ers could realistically hope Carradine develops into.
Other players considered: WR Larry Fitzgerald, C Lyle Sendlein, CB Patrick Peterson
Philadelphia Eagles: C Jason Kelce
Jason Kelce is not the best player on the Philadelphia Eagles. Jason Peters and Evan Mathis form an unparalleled unit on the left side of their offensive line, while LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing last season. In a vacuum, any of those players would have been better choices.
However, we’re specifically picking players to improve San Francisco, and the loss of Jonathan Goodwin leaves a question mark at center. The 49ers did just extend Daniel Kilgore in the offseason, and drafted Marcus Martin in the draft this year, but the actual on-field performance in 2014 is yet to be determined.
Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ top-graded center in 2013, giving up just 12 quarterback disruptions. He’s a rock in the center of the offensive line, part of a unit that has led to Philadelphia’s success under Chip Kelly. He’d fit right in with the other four aces on San Francisco’s offensive line.
Other players considered: RB LeSean McCoy, OT Jason Peters, OG Evan Mathis
Kansas City Chiefs: NT Dontari Poe
Having already addressed the running back position with DeMarco Murray, and considering the difficulty in finding nose tackles for San Francisco’s 3-4 defense, Dontari Poe was an easy selection here.
Nose tackle is the weak link on San Francisco’s front seven, though Glenn Dorsey filled in adequately replacing Ian Williams last season. Dorsey never played more than two-thirds of the snaps in a game last season, being substituted out on passing downs.
Poe doesn’t need to be rotated out. His 1,004 regular season snaps led all defensive tackles. He had 30 defensive stops against the run, while clogging up the middle of the line to let his linebackers have field days behind him.
Poe’s not just good against the run. He actually graded out in the green in every aspect of his game, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Only Jurrell Casey of the Tennessee Titans can also claim that feat. Poe would be an instant upgrade in the center of the defensive line.
Other players considered: RB Jamaal Charles, OLB Justin Houston, SS Eric Berry
St. Louis Rams: DE Robert Quinn
We’ve already enhanced two-thirds of the defensive line with Calais Campbell and Dontari Poe; we might as well complete the upgrade by adding one of the most feared pass-rushers in the NFL.
Robert Quinn had 91 combined sacks, hits and hurries last season. Pro Football Focus says he has re-written what they thought a 4-3 defensive end was capable of, setting a new standard for speed edge-rushing at the NFL level. So impressed with Quinn's season-long performance in 2013 that the site called him the second-best player in the NFL, behind only J.J. Watt.
The 49ers actually kept Quinn somewhat in check in their two matchups in 2013, as Joe Staley and Alex Boone managed to fight him to a draw. Quinn had only one sack and five quarterback hurries in the two matchups, with most of those coming against Boone when Staley went out with an injury.
That’s not quite a fluke, but it’s certainly not indicative of how Quinn destroyed left tackles last season. The former North Carolina Tar Heel doesn’t really fit in as a 3-4 defensive end, as he’s more of a pass-rusher than someone who sets the edge as a 5-technique end. However, the 49ers do use Justin Smith split out a little wider, and I’m sure Vic Fangio could find a way to use a player like Quinn.
Other players considered: OT Jake Long, C Scott Wells, CB Janoris Jenkins
Denver Broncos: OLB Von Miller
Where do you go with a team as talented as the Denver Broncos?
Do you take Peyton Manning, coming off of his fifth career MVP award? What about someone like Julius Thomas to give the 49ers a strong two tight-end set, or Aqib Talib to secure the secondary?
All of these would be perfectly fine choices to add to San Francisco’s lineup, but I decided to double up on dominating pass rushers by sticking Von Miller on the outside.
The 49ers linebacking corps is tops in the NFL. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are elite-level players, arguably the top two at their position, while Aldon Smith, when in the lineup, is one of the most-feared players in football.
The closest thing they have to a weak link is Ahmad Brooks, and he still made the Pro Bowl last season.
Miller only played in nine games last season, due to suspension and injury, but still recorded 27 quarterback hurries to go along with his six sacks and eight quarterback hits (subscription required). That was enough to earn him the top 4-3 linebacker spot in football last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Miller, Aldon Smith, and Robert Quinn coming around the edges, quarterbacks would be running for their lives. In addition, considering the off-field incidents both Miller and Smith have struggled with over their careers, having both of them would make it more likely that at least one would be on the field at any given time.
Other players considered: QB Peyton Manning, WR Demaryius Thomas, OT Ryan Clady
New Orleans Saints: QB Drew Brees
The 49ers just gave Colin Kaepernick a big-money extension that, if all the various escalators and qualifications are met, will pay him like a top-five quarterback. He’s not there quite yet, but he’s probably already a top-10 quarterback in the league, and plenty of teams would love to have him as their starter.
There were four quarterbacks I considered taking to replace Kaepernick during this exercise. I briefly considered Philip Rivers, considering his greater track record of experience. Russell Wilson was also an interesting name, as you have to respect that Super Bowl ring.
It came down to Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in the end—only the most fervent of 49ers fanatics would argue that Kaepernick is currently better than either of the future Hall of Famers. For a long time, I had the 49ers taking Jimmy Graham off of the Saints instead, giving them a tight end duo that is essentially unmatchable.
In the end, though, I had to go with Brees. Surrounded by less talent than Manning has, Brees has thrown for more than 5,000 yards each of the last three seasons. Brees threw for over 300 yards 12 times last season, including the postseason, despite working with a less than ideal left tackle.
Considering the relative value of elite pass rushers and tight ends, I went with Brees and Miller over Manning and Graham, though I wouldn’t argue too strenuously against the other duo.
Other players considered: TE Jimmy Graham, FS Jairus Byrd, RB Pierre Thomas
New York Giants: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
The secondary is probably the closest thing the 49ers have to a weak link. They lost Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner from last year’s roster, and currently have rookie Jimmie Ward penciled in as their starting nickelback.
The New York Giants aren’t loaded with talent, but signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in free agency should make 49ers fans just a little bit jealous. Rodgers-Cromartie has occasional effort issues, leading to a poor season two years ago, but when he’s on, he’s one of the top in the game. Rodgers-Cromartie only allowed one reception for every 15.7 snaps he was in coverage, allowing only 44.1 percent of passes thrown at him to be completed.
Other players considered: OG Geoff Schwartz, DT Cullen Jenkins, SS Antrel Rolle
Washington Redskins: WR DeSean Jackson
There were rumors that the 49ers were interested in signing Jackson when he was released by Philadelphia in the offseason, but the finances never really worked out. Had they been able to get Jackson at a reasonable price, however, he would have provided the team with a deep threat they really don’t have at the moment.
Only Eric Decker had a higher catch rate on targets of 20 yards or more in 2013. Jackson was targeted 33 times, with 16 of those passes listed as “catchable” by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Jackson pulled in all 16 passes, with no drops, leading to eight touchdowns and 553 yards. By comparison, Anquan Boldin had only 202 yards on deep passes to lead San Francisco.
With Jackson, Brandon Marshall and Michael Crabtree as their receiving trio, the 49ers would have without a doutb the best receiver corps in football.
Other players considered: RB Alfred Morris, OT Trent Williams, DE Jason Hatcher
Seattle Seahawks: CB Richard Sherman
It almost had to be a member of the Legion of Boom, and while both Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas would have been solid picks, Richard Sherman’s dominance at the corner position won out in the long run.
Sherman compares to Deion Sanders in two ways—both were great talkers, and both back up their mouths with elite-level play on the field. Sherman allowed only two touchdowns last season while leading the league with eight interceptions. He’s a true shutdown cornerback.
The Madden cover model called himself the best cornerback in the league. While there’s some room to doubt there—Darrelle Revis up in New England is always a solid answer to the question of who’s the best corner in the league—he’s definitely part of the conversation. He’s an instant upgrade over Chris Culliver, Jimmie Ward or anyone else fighting for a roster spot on the team.
Plus, if he’s in San Francisco, he can’t break up passes intended for Michael Crabtree anymore.
Other players considered: RB Marshawn Lynch, FS Earl Thomas, QB Russell Wilson
Oakland Raiders: SS Tyvon Branch
The Oakland Raiders were the toughest team to choose a player from, as their cross-Bay rivals tend to outclass them at almost every position.
For a long time, I considered bringing Tarell Brown back to San Francisco, as his departure in free agency created the need to draft Jimmie Ward in the first place. Picking up Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Richard Sherman, however, makes Brown’s loss negligible.
Instead, we’ll replace the departed Donte Whitner with Tyvon Branch. Branch played in only two games last season, suffering a broken leg against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but is a top-level athlete when healthy. Branch runs a 4.3 40-yard dash and is one of the fastest players in the NFL.
He’s not fantastic in coverage, but he’s very good at wrapping up receivers and keeping them from gaining yards after the catch. With better talent around him in the secondary, he could improve significantly.
Other players considered: C Stefen Wisniewski, CB Tarell Brown, FB Marcel Reece
San Diego Chargers: FS Eric Weddle
While Eric Reid had a great rookie season last year, he’s still inexperienced. Weddle, a two-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro, didn’t allow a single touchdown all year in primary coverage.
Before the 2013 season, Matt Miller called Weddle the best safety in football; one of the best coverage safeties in the game who can also come up and play the run. His performance in 2013 didn’t quite live up to those high standards, but he’s still a complete player who can help in all aspects of defense.
Weddle’s what San Francisco hopes Reid develops into in a few years. He’s been a constant factor in San Diego as talent in the secondary has come and gone around him, a steady hand in an ever-shifting defensive backfield. That sort of consistency and leadership is hard to top.
Other players considered: QB Philip Rivers, WR Keenan Allen, C Nick Hardwick
Putting it all together, you get this lineup (current 49ers in bold):
DE: Robert Quinn, Calais Campbell
NT: Dontari Poe
OLB: Aldon Smith, Von Miller
ILB: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman
CB: Richard Sherman, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Tramaine Brock
S: Tyvon Branch, Eric Weddle
Prefer Manning over Brees? Think you can find some upgrades on the offensive line? Leave your team in the comments!
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.