The curious thing about ranking players on a stacked, Super Bowl contender like the San Francisco 49ers, is that being the best might not qualify you as the most irreplaceable and vice versa.
“What’s that, now?” (said with the heavy Minnesota accent of Fargo’s Lester Nygaard).
Take last season for example.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith missed Weeks 4 through 9 while attending a rehab facility for substance abuse. Yet despite his incontrovertible status as one of the NFL’s upper-echelon pass-rushers, the 49ers went a perfect 5-0 during his absence.
How does a game-changing defender—a first-team All-Pro with 42 sacks in 43 career games, in fact—miss an entire month and his team not miss a beat?
In a word, dominant positional groupings and elite coaching.
Without detracting from Smith’s run-stuffing and quarterback-sacking prowess, the 49ers are flush with talent in their front seven. Take a piece out, and the system still functions because of the quality of the composite whole.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and veteran stalwarts like Justin Smith and Patrick Willis make sure of it.
But all that said, players are ultimately the ones making the actual plays. And not all of them are replaceable over the long term.
Remove Aldon Smith from the field for more than five games—or from the playoff roster, for that matter—and serious repercussions will surely present. The same goes for a select number of offensive personnel.
We can all remember how scoring on offense eventually came at a premium with wide receiver Michael Crabtree shelved for most of 2013.
So even with a bevy of offseason additions on both sides of the ball, the value of some individual players indeed outweighs overall depth at certain positions.
As such, this list will rank those members of the Red and Gold who are vital to its ultimate measure of success: Wins in the postseason. These are the gridiron assets whose absence would prevent another genuine run at a Lombardi Trophy this year.
With that ranking criterion in mind, here now are the six most irreplaceable 49ers in 2014.