San Francisco 49ers: Ranking Strength of Every Positional Unit
Thus, ranking the strength of their positional units becomes an exercise in relativity of the best kind.
From wide receivers to inside linebackers to return men, the 49ers are indeed stacked with quality players across the board. One could even say this squad features legitimate depth at kicker and punter.
Well, all due respect to the versatile Colton Schmidt, perhaps not the latter two.
Facetiousness aside, the Red and Gold haven’t boasted this much comprehensive talent in over two decades. Even the superstar-laden contingent that won Super Bowl XXIX in 1994 wasn’t as thoroughly skilled from top to bottom.
In addition to those aforementioned positions, Niners general manager Trent Baalke infused a bevy of capable bodies at running back, quarterback, on the offensive line, and in the secondary through the draft and free agency. Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial are two redshirt stowaways from 2013 who will bolster the defensive line as well.
So, with a surplus of dynamic assets, eclipsing available roster spots in mind, how does one go about organizing these groups in a hierarchical standing?
This discussion will use production, proven depth, individual star power and collective strength as criteria for ranking the 49ers’ positional units. It will not rate these groups against those belonging to any of the opposing 31 teams—it’s solely an internal 49ers evaluation.
And with those logistical considerations taken care of, let’s move on to the rankings.
Note: While the depth charts listed in this slideshow are unofficial, they do reflect who we believe will materialize as the starters and primary backups.
CB: Tramaine Brock, Jimmie Ward, Perrish Cox
FS: Eric Reid, Craig Dahl
SS: Antoine Bethea, C.J. Spillman
CB: Chris Culliver, Eric Wright, Chris Cook
No, this isn’t the usual "let’s make the 49ers’ secondary the weakest link because it’s convenient" analysis.
Rather, this defensive corps earned last place in these standings because of sheer uncertainty. It could materialize as one of the Niners’ better or worst units in 2014.
Either way, a high degree of positional turnover is an unavoidable theme.
San Francisco lost its top starting cornerbacks, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, and strong safety, Donte Whitner. It signed Chris Cook and Antoine Bethea in free agency and drafted Jimmie Ward in the first round.
For his part, Tramaine Brock established career highs in games started (seven), interceptions (five), pass breakups (15) and tackles (37) last year. The reputable stat brains at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) awarded him a tremendous top-nine ranking among 110 cornerbacks graded.
But Brock attained those benchmarks as the team’s No. 3 corner.
Whether he can replicate those impressive numbers covering the opponents’ best wideout on a weekly basis as the No. 1 cover man remains unknown.
Chris Culliver, meanwhile, forced opposing quarterbacks into a top-10-worthy 49.3 completion percentage…in the 2012 regular season. He missed last year with a torn ACL and hasn’t played since being torched for 123 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVII.
Can he return to form and replace the consistently dependable Brown? Can the highly qualified—but still unproven—Ward do the same for Rogers in nickel coverage?
Moreover, Eric Reid earned a Pro Bowl nod, but he did so with fellow Pro Bowler Whitner playing alongside him. Can he earn another trip to Honolulu as a sophomore with the savvy, yet soon-to-be 30-year-old Bethea holding down strong safety?
Even with big-time production, talent and a host of serviceable bodies on the lower end of the depth chart, questions abound with this unit.
7. Special Teams
K: Phil Dawson
P: Andy Lee
KR/PR: LaMichael James
Specialists: C.J. Spillman, Kassim Osgood, Raymond Ventrone, Darryl Morris, Nick Moody
Yes, special teams are a legitimate part of football.
And yes—they do deserve recognition in ways that a cellar ranking wouldn’t otherwise confer.
This often-neglected unit was anything but for the Red and Gold in 2013.
The 49ers ranked fifth overall in composite kicking and punting, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. That included Phil Dawson’s fifth-most field goals and Andy Lee’s third-best average on punts.
Sure, the coverage unit allowed a couple of notable runbacks, including a costly kickoff return to Doug Baldwin in the NFC Championship. But it kept the opposition out of the end zone and generally put the 49ers in winning positions, while doing the opposite to its gridiron enemies.
Furthermore, the essential core of this group will return in 2014.
Ace coverage men C.J. Spillman, Kassim Osgood and Raymond Ventrone were three of the 49ers’ four leading tacklers and are all under contract. The 4.3-running Darryl Morris remains one of the league’s top gunners. And a healthy Nick Moody will step in seamlessly for Michael Wilhoite if the veteran ‘backer gets the nod as Bowman’s replacement.
Plus, if the need arises, first-year offseason additions Chris Borland, Dontae Johnson and Shayne Skov are three additional special teams stars in the making.
OK, let’s now address the white elephant in the room: LaMichael James.
Questions run rampant whether the team’s presumptive kickoff and punt returner will even don the red and gold this season. To wit, James has been mired in trade speculation throughout the offseason, according to CSNBayArea.com’s Matt Maiocco. He only recently arrived to offseason workouts after missing previous sessions and forfeiting $50,000 in the process.
The undersized collegiate dynamo also finds himself at No. 5 on the running back depth chart (more on this later).
The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows notes that both Baalke and Jim Harbaugh “sloughed off the absence” due to the voluntary nature of those aforementioned workouts. The Niners GM further cited the new addition to James’ family as a reason for him staying in Texas.
Even though we would normally view this as predictable deflection, these are two are of the most unpredictable decision-makers in the business. Let us not forget that the 49ers stood pat at No. 30 in Round 1 when roughly 99.9 percent of the NFL world forecasted a trade-up.
Just because the disgruntled back seems the odd man out in an overwhelmingly stacked backfield, he remains the only proven option for returning kicks.
Blazing fourth-round wideout Bruce Ellington returned just three punts in college, and veteran corner Perrish Cox hasn’t shown much as a returner of any kind at the pro level. And for the last time, Culliver is the 49ers' starting cornerback—this isn’t 2010, and “South Carolina” will not appear on the front of his uniform.
James may not have directly changed the outcome of games in a true game-breaking fashion per say. But his solid 10.9-yard average on punts, 26.8 yards on kickoffs and No. 16 ranking from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) among kick returners deem him a valuable commodity in San Francisco.
OLB: *Aldon Smith, Dan Skuta, Aaron Lynch
ILB: Patrick Willis, Michael Wilhoite, Shayne Skov
ILB: *NaVorro Bowman, Chris Borland, Nick Moody
OLB: Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier
Go ahead—release your unmitigated fury over this latest positional ranking.
If the 49ers were able to retain the services of all four starting linebackers in Week 1, they would undoubtedly sit atop this list.
Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks were all Pro Bowlers in 2013. And Aldon Smith, despite logging just 11 games (eight starts), registered 8.5 sacks and was top five against the run and pass among 3-4 OLB, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Unfortunately, Bowman will likely miss the first eight games as he recovers from a brutal ACL tear, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. Smith could miss even more time if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspends him for his laundry list of off-the-field transgressions, per USA Today’s Tom Pelissero.
That would amount to San Francisco’s defense playing half a season without its defensive MVP and game-changing sack artist.
Now, the 49ers do have formidable backups at both linebacker spots.
Michael Wilhoite led the team in tackles when serving in Willis’ stead for two games last season. Chris Borland is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and Shayne Skov has all the motivation in the world as a mid-round prospect who went undrafted.
Scout Inc.’s Steve Muench, via ESPN’s Bill Williamson, calls Skov “perfect for the 49ers’ scheme” as someone who played for the team’s current defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, at Stanford. Second-year man Nick Moody also brings exceptional athleticism to the inside ‘backer position.
On the outside, Dan Skuta scored high-positive grades from PFF in run defense, pass rush and pass coverage when holding down the fort for Smith. Corey Lemonier, for his part, is on the rise after notching a sack and 24 quarterback pressures in limited snaps as a rookie.
And fifth-round pick Lynch possesses all the upside in world. San Francisco will have yet another lethal edge-rusher if he can mature off the field and realize his immense talents on it.
All that said, the 49ers will still operate without two of their most important ‘backers for much of 2014. The standing of this positional unit thus reflects their impending absence.
T-5. Defensive Line and Running Backs
RB: Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore
DE: Justin Smith, Tank Carradine, Demarcus Dobbs
NT: Ian Williams, Glenn Dorsey, Quinton Dial
DE: Ray McDonald, Tony Jerod-Eddie
Wait, so a team that ranked above 28 squads in run defense and eclipsed all but two in rushing offense comes in tied for No. 5?
Oh, how “first-world problems” are so akin to the 49ers' problems these days.
San Francisco’s veteran “Big Three” on the defensive front all return this season. Said trio includes trench stalwart Justin Smith, right-side counterpart Ray McDonald and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey.
Each one will bring their high-positive merits from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) into 2014. More so, Dorsey’s top-nine rush D, Smith’s top-six pass rush and McDonald’s all-around consistency will reach even greater heights now that reinforcements are on the way.
Last year’s redshirt Tank Carradine, minimally used Quinton Dial and original starting nose tackle Ian Williams will comprise a formidable second unit.
Carradine will provide his dual skill set worthy of 11 sacks and 13 tackles for loss at Florida State in 2012. He also revealed that he packed on almost 20 pounds since his combine weight of 276 during a March interview on 95.7 The Game. That would surely deem him physically ready as Smith’s heir apparent.
Dial will bolster the 49ers’ line with his massive—but versatile—6’5’’, 318-pound frame. Both he and Carradine can attack opposing offenses from inside and out as well.
Williams, for his part, earned the No. 1 spot atop his positional depth chart coming out of training camp last season. He has fully recovered from a brutal ankle injury suffered in Week 2 and will team with Dorsey as a tremendous interior force.
Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs are two additional capable bodies who will keep the primary assets fresh on game days.
On the other side, the 49ers will trot out—wait for it—a four-deep backfield.
Franchise all-timer Frank Gore will resume his duties as the every-down bell cow. Don’t expect the reigning three-time consecutive Pro Bowler (and five times all told) to take a step back—despite the otherwise foreboding 31 years of age attached to his name.
Second-round steal—and the unquestioned best in this year’s class—Carlos Hyde will at the very least serve as a lethal goal-line and short-yardage back. Racking up 31 rushing touchdowns in just 21 games over his final two collegiate campaigns generally lend themselves to such qualifications.
If he doesn’t assume the No. 2 role outright following preseason action, the speedy Kendall Hunter will do just fine as a change-of-pace weapon playing in a contract year.
And if those three weren’t already sufficient, redshirt asset, and the 2013 draft class’s top back, Marcus Lattimore is yet another dynamic option.
The powerful 5’11”, 221-pounder who compiled 38 scores in 29 games at South Carolina “practiced without a brace and took a number of carries...” during the 49ers' OTA’s last week, per The Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows. He is progressing slowly but surely, following the devastating knee injury that prematurely ended his college career.
Lattimore will face zero pressure to play right away and can only fortify this team’s absurdly talented group of running backs.
All four can also catch balls out of the backfield, giving a certain quarterback teammate of theirs even more targets in the passing game.
OK, so why are these two positional groups tied, and why do they sit all the way down at No. 5?
Put succinctly, question marks—and ones that won’t plague those among the top three.
Honoring 100 percent objectivity dictates that Gore is still 31 and that Smith will turn 35 in September. Lattimore potentially being a year away could hurt this corps more than expected. And both Carradine and Dial must show they’re fully healthy and can fluidly apply theoretical concepts into live in-game action.
Yet when it really comes down to it, this collection of backs and linemen would likely earn the highest overall ranking on teams not named the 49ers.
Again, Niners problems…
QB: Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert, Josh Johnson, Kory Faulkner
Note: With all due respect to the latter three, it’s just not worth discussing Kaepernick’s replacements. Just know that Gabbert has starting experience and all the physical tools, while Johnson brings familiarity with Jim Harbaugh’s system. Suffice it to say, the 49ers aren’t making the playoffs without Kaepernick.
Playing the most important position on the field and getting paid nine figures to do it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best on your own team.
And no, it’s not "opposite day."
Fresh off signing a contract that could pay him upward of $126 million (however unlikely due to a host of de-escalators), Colin Kaepernick is primed for a big-time 2014 campaign.
Check that—he’s set for a career-altering 2014 campaign.
Defining his experiential knowledge thus far in the NFL are two highly impactful gridiron seasons. He has a part-time regular year that ended in a narrow Super Bowl defeat, followed by his first 16-game season with an equally close loss in the NFC Championship.
In other words, he has the benefit of incomparable historical learning on his side. Other quarterbacks could only dream of such valuable growth-enhancing experiences.
Kaepernick will indeed maximize his unprecedented skill set. He may not run for more than 524 yards or five touchdowns, but he’ll still deliver lethal production with his legs. And more than that, he’ll establish career bests in passing categories across the board.
But here’s the kicker: Just like he made sure that his new contract wouldn’t prevent extensions for deserving teammates, it is that very supporting cast that will ultimately propel Kap to career benchmarks.
He gets the nod over his cornerback, special teams, linebacker, defensive line and running back fellows. But he still must defer to these next two positional groups.
And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
2. Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
WR: Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington
WR: Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd
TE: Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek
Let’s just be perfectly frank about the first part of this next contingent: It wouldn’t have even deserved honorable mention if this list reflected the opening half of last season.
Of course, with all due respect to one Anquan Boldin.
Kyle Williams was a total non-entity before being released. Mario Manningham was never healthy before officially being put on IR. And Jon Baldwin and Marlon Moore were…well…oh, it’s not even worth mentioning.
Now, two players who returned in the latter half of 2013 will elevate the 2014 wide receiver corps to levels as of yet unseen in the history of this franchise.
A rather unfair haul of offseason additions certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Michael Crabtree, the unquestioned No. 1 and Kaepernick’s most trusted target, will bring full operational status into Week 1. Unlike last season, he’ll produce touchdowns and 100-yard outings beginning in September—as opposed to December and January.
Moreover, fourth-round pick Quinton Patton couldn’t make an impact until Week 17 due to an assortment of injuries. The sure-handed, smooth route-running wideout will instead provide the 49ers with absurd value at the No. 4 spot on the depth chart.
Wait, No. 4 on the depth chart?
Boldin is the obvious go-to weapon behind Crabtree. The beastly, catch-everything receiver returns from a year in which he racked up 1,179 yards and seven scores. Those totals, along with his 85 receptions and 13.9-yard average, all qualified as fourth-most in his illustrious 11-year career.
Meanwhile, Niners general manager Trent Baalke executed two absolute steals over the second two days of the draft.
He first traded a lowly mid-round conditional pick to the Buffalo Bills for Stevie Johnson. The accomplished vet averaged over 1,000 yards and nearly eight scores from 2010-2012 before succumbing to injuries and poor quarterback play last season.
He’ll offer toughness and reliable separation underneath for Kaepernick.
Baalke then greeted the 49ers faithful on the morning of the draft’s final rounds by selecting Bruce Ellington at No. 106 overall. The former South Carolina stud will torch defenses with his speed and quick-twitch abilities.
Ellington will compete with Patton for the fourth spot and will at the very least infuse this offense with situational game-changing production.
Having Crabtree, Boldin and Johnson as his top three receivers will give Kaepernick ample opportunities in the underneath-to-middle portions of the field. Patton and Ellington will complement those horizontal targets by stretching the field in vertical directions.
And if any of those guys aren’t on their toes leading up to the regular season, the still-viable Brandon Lloyd is waiting in the wings. The 11-year athletic dynamo has impressed both Kaepernick and head coach Jim Harbaugh during OTAs, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com.
As for tight ends, the 49ers are sufficiently flush with talent.
Vernon Davis is arguably the best all-around player at his position.
He ranked second in both yards per catch (16.3) and touchdowns (13) while playing in a run-oriented offense. He also amassed the sixth-most yards (850), despite logging just 834 snaps in 15 games.
Graham continually plays at less than 100 percent, and Gronk has missed 14 games since 2012, compared to Davis’ one. The reputable minds at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) also awarded Davis a plus-1.0, while giving the other two a combined minus-8.6 in their proprietary blocking metrics.
Davis’ questionable brand-enhancing tour on the ESPN campus and my digressions with NFL player comparisons aside, No. 85 is the perfect downfield weapon for No. 7. Kap’s elite arm combined with Davis’ unrivaled combination of strength and speed deem this a match made in gridiron heaven.
Throw in a soon-to-be much-improved Vance McDonald in year two and serviceable Garrett Celek and San Francisco’s tight end contingent is rock solid. Each one can block, catch and operate with a high football IQ in Harbaugh’s complex system.
All told, the 49ers wideouts and tight ends are deep, dynamic and downright deadly on the field. They’ll help turn Kaepernick into a better quarterback and will greatly improve the Red and Gold this season.
It’s just that one particular group will so do to a slightly greater extent in 2014.
1. Offensive Line
Please bear with us while we establish a quick argumentative foundation with help from league-wide comparisons.
Per the long-celebrated adage, the NFL game begins and ends in the trenches.
To wit, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees eclipsed the 40-per-game threshold. Lightning-quick release times or not, their blocking personnel allowed the fewest (20) and ninth-fewest sacks (37) in the league.
The Detroit Lions Matthew Stafford came in just below that mark at 39.6. And his line surrendered the second-lowest number of quarterback takedowns (23).
In short, these guys need time to throw, and their blockers make that possible.
This forever-underrated positional group also provides irreplaceable support in the waning—but still-important—run game.
There’s a reason why some of the foremost rushing offenses earn upper-echelon status. The Philadelphia Eagles and, wouldn’t you know, San Francisco 49ers were both top four in total rushing and run blocking, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Yet only the 49ers' front line can open consistent lanes for its running backs, afford ample protection for its quarterback and merit distinction as being eight-, if not 10-players, deep (yours truly might have argued the point in a previous article).
Left tackle Joe Staley has earned a Pro Bowl nod for three consecutive years. He’s been first and sixth in PFF rankings the past two seasons. League analysts widely regard him as one of the best in the business.
Staley’s backup is Jonathan Martin. The somewhat disgraced former Miami Dolphin still brings immense talent. He’ll thrive as a top secondary guy in the locker room with the knowledge of Jim Harbaugh's blocking schemes—his head coach at Stanford.
Left guard Mike Iupati was a first-team All-Pro in 2012 and has been a Pro Bowler for the past two seasons. He was a PFF top-five guard last year and still received top-15 honors as a run-blocker in 2013 while fighting through debilitating knee injuries.
Iupati is in a contract year and will surely reclaim his league-best reputation. If not, his No. 2 comes in the form of reliable veteran Adam Snyder. He can legitimately play every position across the line and has been with the 49ers for all but one of his nine seasons.
Center is yet another two-deep spot for San Francisco.
Daniel Kilgore has been groomed for the role since 2011, while third-round pick Marcus Martin was the consensus top center in this year’s draft class. Both can play all three interior positions.
Right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis, for their part, are two additional stars on the rise.
And if any eyes are looking toward the future, the 6’7’’ Carter Bykowski, short-term proven run-blocker Joe Looney and Iupati’s potential replacement, Brandon Thomas, are three names to keep in mind.
Taken together, this offensive line will work blocking wonders once again for the 49ers.
It will continue doing tremendous work with Frank Gore and might even help develop Carlos Hyde into the offensive rookie of the year. Seeing as it surrendered the second-fewest total quarterback pressures one year ago (139), it will continue fostering Kaepernick’s growth into an effective pocket passer in 2014.
Staley, Iupati and the rest will serve as the foundational conduits for the 49ers' ascension into a top-10 offense this season.
If they indeed move ahead of 20 or so NFL adversaries, placing their front line above its seven friendly Red and Gold counterparts seems fairly reasonable.
May the productive and competitive in-fighting begin.
Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16