San Francisco 49ers: How They Stack Up Against the Rest of the NFC West
The NFC West looks to be another pitched battle between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks for division supremacy, but don’t count out the odds of a surprise team coming from behind to challenge for the crown.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams boast a defensive front line with four first-round picks: Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald. They might have been the best last-place team in 2013—put them in the NFC North or NFC East, and they would have been co-favorites, at worst. If Sam Bradford takes a step forward this year, the Rams could very well challenge for a playoff berth themselves.
With that in mind, the 49ers need to concentrate on winning their division before thinking about a potential appearance in Super Bowl XLIX.
How do the 49ers compare to their divisional rivals? Where are they clearly the cream of their class, and where are they looking up at the rest of the division?
Let’s go through each position group one-by-one and compare where the 49ers are with their rivals—and figure out what needs to happen for them to be the best at each slot.
These rankings are, in the end, a matter of my own opinion, but I’m basing them heavily on their performances in the past few seasons, as well as the potential of the new players who have been added and lost since the end of 2013. You don’t have to be the best anywhere to be the divisional favorites—a team that’s second-best in each category is going to go pretty far.
- Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson)
- San Francisco 49ers (Colin Kaepernick)
- St. Louis Rams (Sam Bradford)
- Arizona Cardinals (Carson Palmer)
Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are really very similar when you break them down, statistically. Football Outsiders had Kaepernick’s DYAR at 791 and Wilson’s at 770 last season, ranking eighth and ninth in the league. They similarly ranked seventh and eighth in DVOA—that’s the per-play metric, while DYAR is the counting stat.
A look at Pro Football Focus’ statistics (via the Bay Area Sports Guy, Scott Preston) also has them very similar, though they ranked Wilson higher in their subjective top-101 player list.
Wilson definitely has one thing Kaepernick doesn’t have, though—a shiny Super Bowl ring. While quarterback wins are highly overrated, as teams win championships and not players, it serves as a functional tiebreaker for now. Kaepernick will look to even the score this season.
Best-Case Scenario: Kaepernick continues to develop, brings his completion percentage back above 60 percent and leads the 49ers to Super Bowl glory.
Worst-Case Scenario: Kaepernick gets hurt. The four presumptive backup quarterbacks in the division are Tarvaris Jackson, Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert. The 49ers’ option, Gabbert, is the worst of that bunch, and it’s not even particularly close.
- San Francisco 49ers (Frank Gore, Bruce Miller)
- Seattle Seahawks (Marshawn Lynch, Derrick Coleman)
- Arizona Cardinals (Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor)
- St. Louis Rams (Zac Stacy, Kadeem Jones)
I actually like Ellington quite a bit, but this was always going to come down to a battle between Gore and Lynch.
Like the quarterback situation, Gore and Lynch are very similar statistically.
Lynch slightly outgained Gore last season 1,257 yards to 1,128, but Gore has the longer track record of success. Both have made the Pro Bowl the last three seasons, and both have been the lynchpin for their respective offense for the past few seasons, as the dying breed of featured running back on run-heavy playoff teams.
In the end, I punted on deciding if Gore or Lynch were better, calling that one a wash. The 49ers come out on top because they have a Pro Bowl fullback in Bruce Miller and a slight edge in the backup running back department—the combined potential of Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore outshining that of Christine Michael alone.
Best-Case Scenario: Gore continues to shine at age 31, and Hyde picks up steam as the year ends, providing the best one-two punch in football.
Worst-Case Scenario: Age catches up with Gore, and Hyde lacks the experience to be a stud in year one. Beast Mode reigns supreme in Seattle, and Ellington flashes greatness in Arizona, leaving the 49ers and the Rams battling for the worst running game in the division.
Receivers and Tight Ends
- San Francisco 49ers (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Vernon Davis)
- Seattle Seahawks (Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Zach Miller)
- Arizona Cardinals (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Ted Ginn, John Carlson)
- St. Louis Rams (Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook)
The best receiver in the division is still Fitzgerald, and all respect should be paid to his year-in, year-out production. That being said, this isn’t an individual list, and while he’d make the All-NFC West team (alongside Harvin and Crabtree), his supporting cast lets him down.
The 49ers could be the second team in NFL history to start a season with five receivers with a 965-plus-yard season under their belt—Crabtree, Boldin, Johnson and Davis are joined by Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd might not even make the final roster, however, as rookie Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton are dripping with potential themselves.
Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus calls this group the best in football (subscription required, via ESPN Insider). I think that’s a stretch myself, as I’ve seen what the Chicago Bears bring to the table, but I can’t think of a team with a better combination of receivers in their prime and prospects to develop for the next few years. What was a weakness in 2013 is a strength now in 2014.
Davis is the best tight end in the division easily, and it’s hard to argue that Boldin and Johnson aren’t the best second and third receivers as well. You can argue all day about whether you’d rather have Crabtree or Harvin, but the depth puts the 49ers clearly on top, in my opinion.
Best-Case Scenario: The flotilla of receivers actually propels the 49ers into the 21st century with a dynamic passing game. Crabtree signs a below-market extension to stay with the team, Patton and Ellington improve enough to replace Boldin and Johnson next season and the passing game rolls on.
Worst-Case Scenario: Age hits Boldin like a sledgehammer, Johnson’s not fully recovered from injury, and Crabtree takes a step backward as conversations about his contract dominate the stories. Harvin stays healthy for the entire season and is a dynamo, Larry Fitzgerald is Larry Fitzgerald and Floyd takes a step forward.
- San Francisco 49ers* (Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Daniel Kilgore, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis)
- St. Louis Rams (Jake Long, Greg Robinson, Scott Wells, Rodger Saffold, Joe Barksdale)
- Seattle Seahawks (Russell Okung, Caylin Hauptmann, Max Unger, J.R. Sweezy, Justin Britt)
- Arizona Cardinals (Jared Veldheer, Jonathan Cooper, Lyle Sendlein, Paul Fanaika, Bobby Massie)
You’ve heard of No. 1 with a bullet? This is No. 1 with an asterisk.
Alex Boone's holdout continues to hover over the 49ers, with trade rumors surrounding the team, according to NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com (via David Fucillo of Niners Nation), as Boone continues to sit at home.
Will Boone and the 49ers come to a deal and end the situation? If so, you’re looking at two Pro Bowlers on the left side of the line, two highly regarded stars on the right and a new center who the 49ers were confident enough to sign to an extension this offseason.
If not, however, that’s enough of a window for me to slide the St. Louis Rams up to tops in the division. Jake Long needs no introduction as one of the top players in the league, and Greg Robinson has all the potential in the world. Wells is a bit of a fossil, but he was a Pro Bowler in Green Bay and is one of the smartest centers in the game. Saffold and Barksdale provide a very solid pair on the right as well.
It’s close enough between the two teams for me to move the Rams into first if Joe Looney replaces Boone, just from the uncertainty. It’s still a good line, but two new starters in the middle make me worry a bit.
Best-Case Scenario: Boone comes into camp, Kilgore justifies the 49ers’ faith in him and the offensive line bullies around the tough defenses of the division.
Worst-Case Scenario: Boone is traded, and neither Kilgore nor Looney is an adequate replacement as a starter. The right side of the line stays in flux all year long, providing a point of attack for those defenses in question.
Interior Defensive Line
- Arizona Cardinals (Calais Campbell, Dan Williams, Darnell Dockett)
- Seattle Seahawks (Tony McDaniel, Brandon Mebane)
- San Francisco 49ers (Justin Smith, Ian Williams, Ray McDonald)
- St. Louis Rams (Kendall Langford, Michael Brockers)
Because the 49ers and Cardinals play a 3-4 defense, the Rams play a 4-3, and the Seahawks play a 4-3 hybrid, you can’t just compare defensive lines. It’s only fair to spit it into two categories—one for the players paid to rush around the edge, and one for players who smash through the middle. Plus, this ups it to four categories each for offense and defense, and that feels fair.
I’m heavily concerned about the nose tackle position for the 49ers, with Glenn Dorsey missing the entire season.
On a positive note, Quinton Dial played well in the first preseason game, and Ian Williams is off the PUP list, according to Mike Wilkening of Pro Football Talk, so that’s good news. There’s also intriguing depth behind the starting defensive line, including Tank Carradine. In some divisions, that would be enough for a top-two ranking, but the NFC West is not most divisions.
I went back and forth over Arizona and Seattle, which are very hard to compare, thanks to their different defensive philosophies. Seattle has Kevin Williams coming off of the bench, for heaven’s sake—there’s some serious depth there.
Calais Campbell is a beast, however. A 3-4 defensive end isn’t supposed to rack up sacks; that’s the job for the outside linebacker. Campbell still managed to rack up nine sacks last season and hasn’t had less than six since he became a starter in 2009.
I think Darnell Dockett will rebound some, too, and a move to nose tackle will help play to Dan Williams’ strengths. In the end, I had to give it to Arizona.
Best-Case Scenario: Ian Williams comes back fully healthy, and the backup trio of Tank Carradine, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Quinton Dial are the best in football. Dockett takes another step back, and Dan Williams doesn’t thrive in his new role, while the Seahawks defense experiences an overall regression toward the mean.
Worst-Case Scenario: Age hits Smith like a hammer, and Williams isn’t ready to go at the beginning of the season. The 49ers are soft up the middle and are victimized by tough power-run games all season long.
- St. Louis Rams (Chris Long, Robert Quinn)
- San Francisco 49ers (Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks)
- Seattle Seahawks (Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett)
- Arizona Cardinals (John Abraham, Matt Shaughnessy)
Step back for a moment and just look at those top three teams. That’s an insane collection of pass-rushing talent there; any of them would be tops in the league in any other division. The fact that all of them play in the NFC West is simply unfair. You need two elite tackles just to survive four or six games against that talent.
The big question mark for the 49ers, of course, is how long will Aldon Smith miss with a suspension?
That’s still up in the air, with everything from a two-game suspension to an eight-game suspension suggested in the media. If it’s on the longer end, you can safely drop the 49ers below the Seahawks. While I have high hopes for Corey Lemonier, hopes don’t compare to the proven potential the Rams and Seahawks bring.
Quinn was the Defensive Player of the Year, and Long had a “down” year with only 8.5 sacks, after two seasons of 10-plus in the years before.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Quinn a plus-74.6 grade last season, blowing the scale out of the water—the next highest 4-3 defensive end got a 25.6. The awards, the statistics and the eye-test all add up to the Rams having the best set of pass-rushers in the league.
Best-Case Scenario: Smith gets a Ray Rice-esque suspension and comes back a monster, earning double-digit sacks yet again, while Brooks continues to be the forgotten linebacker, despite being a Pro Bowler himself. Lemonier comes on as well, giving the 49ers options to save some money at the position in the future.
Worst-Case Scenario: Smith is out for half the year, and Lemonier isn’t an adequate replacement. The Rams and Seahawks rocket past the 49ers, who have to somehow cope with “only” one Pro Bowl pass-rusher on the outside.
- San Francisco 49ers (Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman)
- Seattle Seahawks (Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright)
- St. Louis Rams (Jo-Lonn Dunbar, James Laurinaitis, Alec Ogletree)
- Arizona Cardinals (Kevin Minter, Larry Foote)
I’m a big fan of Laurinaitis myself, and Ogletree is interesting as well. However, this is a two-horse race.
If Bowman was healthy the entire season, I think this wouldn’t be a contest. Willis and Bowman are not only the top linebacking duo in the league right now, I can’t name a better middle linebacker duo in NFL history.
Bowman isn’t healthy, of course, and so the Seahawks make a strong charge for the top of this list.
Bruce Irvin is a hard player to peg—he plays a hybrid “Leo” position, so perhaps I should count him as an edge rusher as opposed to a 4-3 linebacker. Whatever position he plays, however, he’s a dominating physical force.
Bobby Wagner is a top-10 inside linebacker himself, and that leaves Wright or Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith at the other spot. That’s a very good group there.
But while that’s a group that’s one of the top linebacking corps in a given season, the 49ers duo is one of the top linebacking corps of all time. In the end, even eight games of the two together was too much for me to drop Bowman and Willis from the top spot.
Best-Case Scenario: Bowman comes back in mid-October and picks up right where he left off, earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors, despite not missing any time last season.
Worst-Case Scenario: Bowman’s recovery takes him through December, and 2014’s a lost season for him. The Seahawks come to my house and physically destroy me for not ranking any of their truly great front seven as the best in their own division.
- Seattle Seahawks (Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Jeremy Lane)
- Arizona Cardinals (Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie, Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson, Rashad Johnson)
- San Francisco 49ers (Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Jimmie Ward, Antoine Bethea, Eric Reid)
- St. Louis Rams (Trumaine Johnson, Janoris Jenkins, Brandon McGee, T.J. McDonald, Rodney McLeod)
Remember the starting secondary the 49ers put up in Super Bowl XLVII? Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson? Well, they’re all gone now.
Brock and Culliver haven’t started a full season between them, Ward’s a rookie and Reid’s only a second-year player. Only Bethea has a real track record of success. There’s a lot of potential here, but with great potential comes great risk—if any of the young players have growing pains, the secondary could be a mess.
The Arizona Cardinals might have the best nickel cornerbacks in the league with Peterson, Cromartie and Mathieu. If this was just a cornerback ranking, I might be tempted to slide them into the number one slot.
Still, there’s no arguing with the Legion of Boom. Who’s best—Thomas, Chancellor or Sherman? They’re all arguably the best at their respective positions in the NFL or at least in the conversation. This unit, if it stays together for a few more years, has the potential to be remembered as the best group in NFL history.
Best-Case Scenario: Honestly, I don’t see the 49ers being any better than the third-best in the division even if all of their young players take a step forward. It’s just too loaded at the top of the division. Ward looking great as a rookie would be wonderful, but it's not enough to vault them to the top.
Worst-Case Scenario: All of the 49ers' cornerbacks show a lack of experience, and they struggle. With Bowman and Aldon Smith missing time, the 49ers defense fails to get a pass rush, exposing the secondary, which gets shredded. The Rams are better than advertised, too, sending the 49ers crashing to the bottom of the division.
- St. Louis Rams (Greg Zuerlein, Johnny Hekker, Tavon Austin)
- San Francisco 49ers (Phil Dawson, Andy Lee, LaMichael James)
- Seattle Seahawks (Steven Hauschka, Jon Ryan, Percy Harvin)
- Arizona Cardinals (Jay Feely, Dave Zastudil, Ted Ginn)
The 49ers are probably dead last in the division when it comes to the return game. Austin, Harvin and Ginn are all weapons who can deliver a score at any point. James was that weapon in college, but he’s yet to show that form in the pros.
However, then you have Lee, the best punter in football. The 49ers are so focused on winning the field position battle that he is an invaluable weapon for the team; Lee was in the top five in terms of yards per punt for the seventh consecutive season and shows no signs of slowing down. Dawson’s old, but he's reliable; he missed only four field goals last season.
The Rams pass the 49ers, though. Zuerelien might well have the strongest leg among all the active kickers, and Hekker has been about as electrifying as a punter can possibly be in his first two years, earning All Pro honors last season. Add in the huge advantage they have in the kick return game, and they take the crown here.
Best-Case Scenario: LaMichael James is hypnotized to think he’s back at Oregon and puts up amazing numbers in the return game.
Worst-Case Scenario: Age and the general randomness of kicker performance hits Phil Dawson hard, and Lee begins to slide back to the pack at age 32. James does not take a step forward.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.