Which 49ers Players Are Destined for Pro Bowl Performances in 2014?
You know the usual suspects are destined for 2014 Pro Bowl nods from the San Francisco 49ers. Of course I'm talking about Patrick Willis, Joe Staley and Justin Smith, who all have current Pro Bowl streaks to extend.
But who else will be invited to play in Arizona?
I predicted that seven 49ers would earn the honor. Only one of which is not a repeat from last year, when San Francisco had eight Pro Bowlers.
Before we get to the seven, though, let's check out some of San Francisco's best players who likely won't make the cut.
Crabtree is primed for a big season.
But topping his 2012 numbers (1,105 receiving yards, nine TDs) is unlikely because the 49ers have more mouths to feed.
Boldin, Vernon Davis and Stevie Johnson are going to get their share of targets. The 49ers don't throw the ball enough to make any of their wide receivers a Pro Bowl candidate.
Crabtree has the best chance of the wide receiver group, though. He had 55 catches for 823 yards and seven touchdowns in San Francisco's last eight games of 2012 (playoffs included). Of course, he accumulated those numbers without Boldin or Johnson.
Last year was a frustrating season for Davis. The 49ers' run game took a step back, and Davis was one reason why.
Davis had offseason shoulder surgery. If healthy, he could return to being the mauling run-blocker he was in 2012. If so, he'll be in the thick of the tackle Pro Bowl chase, but it's likely teammate Joe Staley will get the most credit for improvement from San Francisco's offensive line.
Even if Kaepernick sets career highs in most statistical categories, he's still going to have a tough time beating out Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (as long as they stay healthy). That only leaves two spots.
I don't see that happening.
Gore had just one 100-yard performance in his last 13 games of the 2013 season (playoffs included). The 31-year-old should get plenty of rest this season with backups Carlos Hyde, Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James ready to make an impact (if they can stay healthy).
With the talent at running back in the NFL, the only way Gore gets another Pro Bowl nod is if several players voted in before him elect to sit out.
Andy Lee/Phil Dawson
The punter and placekicker are in the top tier of their respective positions. However, only two players are chosen from each position.
I'd give Lee, a three-time Pro Bowler, a slightly better chance to get voted in, but they are both long shots.
Just Missed the Cut
On one hand, Tony Gonzalez's retirement opens up a tight end spot for Davis. On the other, Kaepernick is bound to spread the ball around more with Stevie Johnson and a healthy Michael Crabtree.
That's bad news for Davis' stats.
He only had 52 receptions last year. And though he's a quality red-zone target, matching his total of 13 touchdown receptions from a year ago seems far-fetched.
Younger pass-catching tight ends—such as Jordan Reed, Jordan Cameron, Julius Thomas and Coby Fleener—are destined for big seasons. And mainstays Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski are still around to secure Pro Bowl invites.
Davis could just miss the cut.
Brock had five interceptions last year, which put in a tie for third-most among cornerbacks. As San Francisco's No. 1 cornerback, he'll face lots of targets, which will give him a chance to put up big numbers in 2014.
He'll likely finish on the outside looking in due mostly to the popularity of other cornerbacks.
Smith has 42 sacks in 43 career regular-season games. Yet, there is reason to believe he'll average more than one sack per game in 2014.
"I'm in the best shape I've been in coming into a camp, and my mind is probably in the best spot it's been in, so I'm feeling great," Smith told reporters.
Smith's fate depends on how long of a suspension he gets from the NFL. He's scheduled to meet with commissioner Roger Goodell on Aug. 8. If the suspension is four games or more, he'll have a hard time accumulating good enough stats to impress voters.
I also wonder if voters, especially the fans, will purposely not vote for Smith because of his well-known off-the-field issues.
As Taylor Price of 49ers.com reported, Willis has been playing Navorro Bowman's strong-side inside linebacker spot during the offseason. Willis is a practically a lock to earn Pro Bowl honors at either inside LB spot, but he should accumulate more tackles on the strong side than he did last year on the weak side.
Willis has been named a Pro Bowler seven consecutive seasons. As the 49ers depend on him more in 2014 without Bowman for at least a few games, he'll show the NFL why he's still the best middle 'backer in football.
Mike Iupati struggled in 2013, yet he was given a Pro Bowl nod. I'd say it was a reputation selection.
Now, the left guard is entering a contract year.
Expect the 2012 version of Iupati—No. 2 in PFF's run block stat among guards. The mauler dealt with several injuries last year, including a fractured fibula suffered in the NFC Championship Game loss.
He'll be motivated to bounce back from his mediocre 2013 performance.
It's that consistency that makes him a lock for another Pro Bowl honor.
The left tackle has been selected to three straight Pro Bowls. Expect nothing different in 2014, especially with Iupati getting back to his dominant self next to him.
Brooks picked up his first Pro Bowl honor in 2013, finishing with 8.5 sacks in the regular season. He showed no signs of slowing down in the playoffs, adding 4.5 more sacks in January.
With fellow outside linebacker Aldon Smith expected to be suspended for the beginning of the 2014 season, Brooks will once again have a chance to prove that he can pressure quarterbacks even when he's the opponents' first priority to stop.
Voters will have to take notice if Brooks and the rest of San Francisco's defense step up without Smith.
When watching Justin Smith last year, you knew something was wrong. He wasn't defending the run at a high level. And it showed in his stats, as the veteran had a career-low 49 total tackles.
Smith recently admitted a shoulder injury he suffered in last year's training camp affected his 2013 performance.
"You use your arms in football quite a bit (playing) inside," Smith said, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. "It was what it was. Moving forward. It feels good, so that's all that matters."
Smith still had 6.5 sacks en route to his fifth straight Pro Bowl nod. The 34-year-old has at least one more Pro Bowl season left in him as long as he stays healthy.
You would have never known Reid was a rookie last season when watching him play.
The free safety was consistently around the football. He finished the season with 91 total tackles and four interceptions.
With Antoine Bethea repacing Donte Whitner at strong safety, Eric Reid (as the longest-tenured 49ers starting safety) may take on more responsibility. I think he's ready for it, and with it he'll be even better in 2014.
The fullback position is dying, but fortunately for Bruce Miller, the 49ers still use it heavily in their offensive packages.
Miller's blocking alone is worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. But it's his receiving that will get him his first Pro Bowl nod in 2014.
Miller caught 25 passes in 14 games in 2013. Kaepernick trusts him as a checkdown option.
If he puts up similar numbers and San Francisco's running game remains elite, voters will have to take notice that he's a better all-around player than Carolina's Mike Tolbert, who was one of two Pro Bowl fullbacks in 2013.