Ranking San Francisco 49ers Most Irreplaceable Players
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.
6. OLB Aldon Smith
Remember when Aldon Smith was well on his way to an all-time record with 19.5 sacks through the first 13 games of 2012?
And remember when he didn’t register a single one over the final six games (playoffs included) while struggling through a partially torn labrum?
Essentially reduced to the use of just one of his arms, Smith’s compromised state back then would be comparable to him not being there at all during this latest playoff run.
The 49ers wouldn’t have the services of the two-sack, seven-quarterback-pressure Smith—per Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—who dominated last year’s NFC Championship Game.
They would instead get the zero-sack, physically defeated outside ‘backer who was a total non-entity in their Super Bowl XLVII defeat.
If he hadn’t set the tone for the 49ers and controlled the raucous CenturyLink crowd so early in the game, it’s highly unlikely they would ever have been in position to win in the fourth quarter.
So, in the near-certain case these two rivals meet again in the conference championship, the 49ers must have their leading sack artist. A seasoned and fully operational Aldon Smith is a fundamental necessity to the 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes.
Niners fans can only hope at this point that any potential suspension for off-the-field behavior occurs in the early part of 2014.
5. OL Alex Boone
There’s a distinct reason why Alex Boone held out of the recent mandatory minicamp and finds himself among this list’s top five.
He’s the most important element on the 49ers’ strongest positional unit.
Despite not earning the title of best overall lineman—that belongs to Joe Staley—Boone is instrumental to the functionality of this offensive front.
He is the starting right guard and most athletic member of this group. He generates downfield push in the run game as well as any, if not better, than his four trench-occupying teammates.
Sure, his pass protection doesn’t necessarily merit the same level of praise. But his unrivaled versatility does.
Boone took over left tackle when Staley when down early against the St. Louis Rams in Week 13. He stonewalled first-team All Pro—and PFF’s No. 1 rated 4-3 defensive end—Robert Quinn to zero sacks and just three hurries.
The man racked up 19 sacks in the Rams’ 15 other games.
Even at a towering 6’7”, Boone can operate effectively both outside at tackle and inside at guard. He beats would-be defenders with proper leverage, nimble footwork and overwhelming physical strength.
The 49ers win games by controlling the line of scrimmage, especially in the postseason.
And on the offensive side of things, Boone is the most critical to that game-defining endeavor.
4. RB Frank Gore
When Frank Gore carried the ball only nine times for 16 yards against Seattle in Week 2, the 49ers lost.
Thirteen weeks later, San Francisco prevailed at home over the Seahawks when Gore amassed 110 yards on 17 carries.
And when the Niners' all-time leading running back took the rock just 11 times for 14 yards in the conference championship, well, you get the idea.
Gore totaled at least 86 yards on the ground in six games last year. All six times the 49ers won.
While there isn’t a 100 percent direct correlation between those numbers and team victories, Gore is pivotal to a winning formula.
He gashes opposing defenses with his patented inside runs. That unmatched interior vision then opens up outside lanes for Kendall Hunter and quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Consistent touches by No. 21 creates play-action opportunities in the passing game and controls time of possession. His pre-eminent abilities in pass protection and comprehensive and intuitive knowledge of the playbook facilitate this offense as a whole.
So, why is he all the way down at No. 4 in these rankings?
Because at his advanced running-back age of 31, Gore is no longer sufficient as a one-man wrecking crew. He is susceptible—naturally so—to wearing down in the playoffs after battling through 16 grueling regular-season contests.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman will need the likes of Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and possibly Marcus Lattimore as complementary backs. Hyde, in particular, will serve as a powerful goal-line weapon with his 6’0", 235-pound frame.
But through it all, Gore is by no means replaceable. The 49ers aren’t advancing to hallowed ground without him.
Yet on this list, he does find himself as the fourth-most irreplaceable.
3. DE Justin Smith
Recall that whole talk about front-seven defenders operating with just one arm?
Not surprisingly, he played in all three playoff games after missing only two in the regular season. Incomprehensible toughness indeed, “the Cowboy” simply exists in a realm beyond us fragile mortals.
We could only dream of possessing such no-nonsense, blue-collar grit.
But functioning properly with one arm in the trenches against the biggest and baddest the NFL has to offer is, suffice it to say, a total impossibility.
Smith did not register a sack and produced just three quarterback hurries in the playoffs two years ago. He received negative grades from Pro Football Focus for all three games, including a minus-4.5 against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
He couldn’t effectively occupy double teams, provide an inside pass rush against Joe Flacco or neutralize Ray Rice in the backfield with only one arm.
As incredibly strong as he is, No. 96 finally experienced his limit. And so did the 49ers.
Fast-forward to 2013, and a healthy Smith accumulated nine quarterback pressures and controlled the run on his side of the field. He earned high-positive grades from PFF against the Panthers and Seahawks as well.
While taking a backseat somewhat in 2014, San Francisco will still rely on its league-superior defense. As one of the most critical pieces on that unit, Smith’s front-line work allows the linebackers to makes plays and maximizes this group’s effectiveness.
Redshirt NFL sophomore Tank Carradine waits eagerly in the wings. But on account of having not participated in a padded practice since being drafted in 2013, per the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows, he is still very raw.
Put another way, he isn’t ready for the ultimate stage. The 49ers can’t win the franchise’s sixth Lombardi without Justin Smith.
2. ILB NaVorro Bowman
The 49ers haven’t experienced gridiron life sans NaVorro Bowman for an extended period since elevating him to starter in 2011.
Unfortunately, that will no longer be the case come the latest regular season campaign.
Bowman will likely miss the first eight weeks (seven games) while he recovers from a devastating torn ACL and MCL in last year’s NFC Championship Game. CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco projects no earlier than Week 7 versus the Denver Broncos on Oct. 19.
San Francisco must survive the first half of 2014 without its perennial first-team All Pro, leading tackler and quarterback of its top-five defense. Facing the Rams and Broncos in consecutive weeks on the road will surely prove a considerable task for the Red and Gold.
That said, Jim Harbaugh’s bunch will emerge with a winning record following this early stretch. Coming out on top in September and October isn’t the issue.
Either last season’s backup standout Michael Wilhoite or Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland will stabilize things alongside Willis.
What would materialize as entirely problematic, however, is if Bowman was inactive for the entire postseason.
In the case the 49ers qualify as a wild-card seed, they could still overcome, say, an inferior Carolina Panthers team in the first round. Cam Newton and Co. lost a ton of pieces and regressed over the offseason.
Bowman is the 49ers’ best cover defender over the middle of the field. He holds down the fort against inside pass-catchers in dime packages while Willis goes to the sidelines.
He’s also this team’s leading interior pass-rusher. Only five other inside linebackers in the NFL totaled more than Bowman’s five sacks last season.
If the 49ers do end up eking out a win against one of those explosive opponents, there’s a zero chance of similar success in the conference championship.
Niners fans everywhere wish No. 53 the speediest of recoveries.
1. QB Colin Kaepernick
You weren’t expecting kicker Phil Dawson here, were you?
Colin Kaepernick is not only the most irreplaceable 49er; he’s also the most dynamic and physically gifted specimen in the NFL.
He’s nothing short of a fictional “Roboquarterback” personified in real life.
When former pro and longtime positional expert, Ron Jaworski said he believed “Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever,” via Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, he wasn’t entertaining hyperbole.
Kap can indeed throw harder, run faster and challenge defenses in more ways than any of his historical counterparts.
Of course, the operative word here is can.
Anyone who’s watched him over his first two seasons understands that he’s still developing as a passer at football’s highest level.
Torching defenders with his legs is easy. But going through his progressions, synthesizing his perceptual observations and executing the right play at the right time still isn’t there on a consistent basis.
Then again, Kaepernick’s only been on this earth for 26 years.
The 49ers’ financially savvy executives didn’t shell out nine figures over six years for what he did in the past; they’re paying him for what he’ll do in the future.
And what he’ll do is lead the Niners through the regular season, into the playoffs and onto a red-and-gold-colored float in a Super Bowl parade come mid-February.
What, do you think Blaine Gabbert or Kory Faulkner could so the same?
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