The 2010 season brought with it a succession of disappointing events. Fortunately for the 49ers, they landed their number one choice to fill the head coaching vacancy when they hired Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh has undoubtedly began evaluating the talent he has on the roster going into next year, so I thought it would be an excellent time to compose this list. This is a list ranking the 22 starters from the 2010 season, going into the 2011 season.
This list is not designed to investigate who is staying and who is going, or should be in the starting lineup next season. It is also not an evaluation of their performance in 2010, but rather a look at where they stack up heading into next season.
I would also like to add that if multiple players started at a given position --due to injury or otherwise-- the player who received the majority of starts will appear on this list.
While this list would likely lead up to the team's MVP, I thought it would be fitting to work our way down, as the 49ers finished the season 6-10.
Patrick Willis may have missed his first game of his career by sitting out with a broken hand in Week 17, but he is on his way to the 4th Pro Bowl of his career. Willis had a career high six sacks this season, to cap off another outstanding year.
He is the heart and soul of the 49ers' defense. His consistency and ferocity are unparalleled not only on the team, but throughout the division and beyond. He is widely regarded as one of the best linebackers in the NFL and he is improving every season.
Willis makes plays five yards in the backfield and 20 yards down field. He is a model human being and he has a phenomenal work ethic. He has a rare combination of possessing an immense amount of talent and humility.
While I could write 5,000 words on why Patrick Willis is the best starter on the 49ers, I'll stop it here.
Frank Gore was on his way to having one of the best seasons of his career, before a fractured hip in Week 12 sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Gore is an old school back with a bruising run style. He is a one cut runner who hits the hole hard.
While he is one of the best backs in a one back system, his style of running often leaves him battered. His durability hinders him from being an elite NFL back, but the 49ers are happy with his production when he is healthy.
With the coaching change, Gore will likely see an increase in production and a decrease in the amount of hits he has to sustain. The line is getting back two starters next season and both rookies on the line have a whole season under their belts.
Gore might not have played the entire season, but he racked up 100 yards on the ground or receiving in five games this season.
Vernon Davis is one of the most athletic tight ends in the NFL. He has some of the best hands in the league and he is an elite route runner with break away speed. Because of that, his ability to in-line block goes unnoticed at times.
Davis could easily be considered one of the best blocking tight ends. When Davis run blocks, he is more of an extension of the tackle position. He has remarkable technique for a tight end and exudes maximum effort, even when his number isn't being called to go out on a route.
Teams took away the Vernon Davis seem route for the most part this season, which was a big reason he caught six less touchdowns this season. His catches and touchdowns may be down, but his average yards per catch has risen.
Davis makes life a nightmare for opposing defenses by creating mismatches against nearly every defender. Too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers, Davis will likely be the team's leading receiver again in 2011. He will provide a dependable outlet for the next young quarterback who will seemingly enter the franchise in the near future.
Justin Smith led the 49ers with 8.5 sacks this season. While three of those sacks came in Week 17 against Arizona, Smith has consistently put himself in the backfield all season long. The term 'high motor' is overused in the NFL, but it applies here.
Smith does not take downs off and it is difficult to see regression from the first snap to the last snap. His aggressive play wears on the offense. Smith is the perfect 3-4 defensive lineman. His combination of quickness and strength allow him to have the upper hand on most offensive lineman throughout the league.
He is approaching the back end of his career and given the way he plays, when his endurance starts to fade, it is safe to say his production will as well. For the time being, Smith is the best defensive lineman on the 49ers. Mike Singletary wanted to dominate the trenches during his reign, but Justin Smith was the only player on either side of the ball who could justify using the word dominate. (No pun intended there with the word justify).
Takeo Spikes led the team in interceptions this season, with three. He is 34 years old, but still manages to make plays all over the field, despite his declining speed and durability.
Spikes plays the backside middle linebacker position, alongside Patrick Willis. In the 49ers' defense, Patrick Willis is given the ability to be more flexible because of the faith the 49ers have in Takeo Spikes. Spikes can cover out of the back field and is a sure tackler.
In a game against Green Bay this season, Spikes had 17 tackles. He might not be in his prime, but he makes up one half of the best middle linebacker tandems in the NFL. Only 25 players in the league bested Spikes' 109 tackles.
He might not be making the Pro Bowl again before he retires, but has certainly exceeded expectations in San Francisco. When he is ready to step down, Navarro Bowman should be ready to step in.
Tackle Joe Staley was limited to only nine games for the second time in his last two seasons. The 49ers traded up to get him in the first round. While Staley seemed to be more cut out to play right tackle, given his skill set and stature, the 49ers moved him to the left side.
Anthony Davis is a prototypical left tackle, but Staley is certainly the better mand for the job for the time being. He is far and away the best lineman on the 49ers at this point. While that will likely not ring true in the near future, it certainly is for the time being.
Staley just signed a monster contract extension, and rightfully so. He brings consistency to an offensive line who has rendered poor results. It is unclear if the 49ers are going to try to transition Anthony Davis over to the left side, but at least for the time being, whoever is under center can take refuge in the fact that Joe Staley is protecting his blind side.
Dashon "Hawk" Goldson is quickly becoming a fan favorite in the Bay Area. He has a nose for the ball and attacks the ball carrier with such ferocity that he is easy to get behind. He isn't Ronnie Lott, but he comes downhill and helps out with run support well for a free safety.
He could do better in pass coverage, though he was able to intercept a pass this season for a touchdown. If Taylor Mays can develop into a starter, the 49ers are going to have potentially the hardest hitting safeties in the NFL.
Unfortunately, Goldson gets so caught up in making the big hit, he is not always a sure tackler. Even so, he improves every year and the 49ers are lucky to have such a promising young safety. If the 49ers can bring in help in coverage, Dashon Goldson will flourish.
The 49ers are fortunate to have Michael Crabtree. He is a great route runner and if the 49ers didn't have such inconsistency at the quarterback position, Crabtree could easily break the streak of seasons without a 1,000 yard receiver.
He racked up six touchdown passes and 741 yards this season. While he did have a few easy catches slip through his hands this season, Crabtree is sure handed for the most part. He doesn't have world class speed, but he certainly isn't slow.
The 49ers might have a super star on their hands. He slipped in the draft and the 49ers were wise to take him, as Arnaz Battle was the team's number one receiver when Crabtree was chosen. Now that an offensive minded coach is coming in, expect Crabtree's numbers to increase drastically.
Already? Yes, already. Mike Iupati is a mauler guard with surprising athleticism. He suffered through rookie mistakes this season, jumping off sides and missing assignments at times, but his play in the later weeks of the season was eye catching, to say the least.
Iupati gives the 49ers the tools to do just about whatever they want when it comes to maneuvering the guard. He can pull, he can block inline, and he can pass block. He is still developing, but Iupati solidifies the 49ers' interior line. Iupati can handle the big defensive lineman up front as well as the guys at the second level.
Some may think the 49ers were reaching when they took a guard in the mid first round --especially one from Idaho-- but he brings a physicality to the offensive line that it has direly missed.
Last season at this time, Franklin would have easily been in the top five. Even though his production has remained relatively the same, he didn't have nearly the impact he had a season ago. When he is at his best, Franklin is the perfect nose tackle in a 3-4.
He isn't a huge two gap nose, but he is compact and difficult to move. His ability to command multiple offensive lineman allows Patrick Willis or Takeo Spikes to come completely free to the ball carrier at times.
In a 3-4, the defensive line is supposed to command the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers to make plays. Franklin may or may not be with the 49ers next season, as they franchise tagged him, but he certainly brings what they are looking for at the defensive tackle position, even though his effort level seems to vary at times.
This might throw people for a loop. How can Shawntae Spencer be ranked higher than Nate Clements, when he is the 49ers' number two cornerback. Spencer ranks behind Clements in tackles, sacks, and has one fewer passes defended.
Like Clements, he has three interceptions this season. What makes him better, is that he is a better cover corner. The 49ers have personnel that can tackle already. Spencer is their best cover guy and the only one who they can have any faith in when they are in man coverage.
Spencer was beaten a few times in 2010, but he still holds his own against elite wide receivers, especially Larry Fitzgerald, who played at Pitt with Spencer. Spencer has the upper hand in most cases when it comes to defending the number two receiver. He might not be the most physical corner on the 49ers' roster, but there is a much higher demand for players who are solid in coverage, rather than players who can help in run defense.
Josh Morgan is another one of those guys you can't help but like. With just under 700 yards, Morgan is a solid number two option at wide receiver. He runs crisp routes and models his play after Jerry Rice's. While his play is nowhere near the level of Rice's, you have to like that he is taking the initiative to strive for excellence.
Morgan had his best game of the season in one of the 49ers' most embarrassing outings. He had 7 catches for 106 yards against San Diego. As Michael Crabtree improves, he will begin commanding the respect of defenses.
The 49ers have a number of targets to take the attention off of Morgan, which will in turn lead to better numbers in the future. If Morgan can consistently be a 700 yard guy, he contributing more than enough in the number two role, especially considering that the 49ers have Frank Gore in the backfield and Vernon Davis soaking up a large quantity of passes.
Moran Norris would be top five on the 49ers if this list were best players at their respective position. He contributes absolutely nothing except the ability to block, but that is more than enough.
Norris played a crucial role in paving the way for Frank Gore and Bryan Westbrook this season. He is effective at picking up the blitz when he needs to and if the Jim Harbaugh retains him on the 53 man roster, he will be able to utilize him in situations that require a lead blocker.
Norris is one of the only true fullbacks in the entire NFL. The 49ers brought him back to help take some of the punishment away from Gore, while establishing a power run game. They failed miserably at both, though the blame does not lie with Norris.
This is the point where the list turns sour. Manny Lawson was brought in to be the edge rusher in the 3-4 defense. He is huge, at 6-5 with long arms. He can help in pass coverage, he is great at sealing the edge, but no matter how hard the 49ers try, he is ineffective at getting to the passer.
Last season he had 6.5 sacks. Ironically, the 49ers now pull him in situations where it is clearly a pass. Isn't that what he was brought in to do in the first place? The 49ers have a healthy rotation at outside linebacker between four players.
It is interesting that of those four players, Manny Lawson has the least amount of sacks. He might not be the biggest defensive liability, but he certainly has not played up to his potential. The 49ers need a double digit sack guy at outside linebacker, and it doesn't appear Lawson will ever become that.
Isaac Sopoaga has offensive lineman walk on his back to loosen it up when it tightens. He is unconventional and that is part of the reason I am fond of him. He is clearly the third-best defensive lineman on the 49ers.
He can play defensive end or tackle, so if the team decides to switch to a 4-3, Sopoaga will be at the forefront of that movement. What I struggle with is how he can be utilized in a 3-4 as a defensive end.
He is good for one or two tackles a game and hardly ever gets to the quarterback. He consistently stalemates, which is better than giving up ground, I suppose. That being said, he is a solid player to have in a defensive line rotation. Not to mention, the 49ers did put him at fullback in short yardage situations.
Let's start with the positive. Reggie Smith is the best cover safety the 49ers have. Period. That isn't saying much though and when the 49ers were consistently getting beat deep, the safety position is at least partially responsible.
Reggie Smith was given the nod over Taylor Mays, because the 49ers were worried about Mays in coverage. Smith only has three passes defended and one interception. While Smith is not a liability in pass coverage, there are those who believe the 49ers should have left Mays in the lineup.
Reggie Smith is great in situations that require a fifth defensive back, but his inability to make plays grossly outweighs his ability to be average in coverage, even though average trumps every other 49er safety.
There are people who absolutely despise Anthony Davis to the point where they think he would warrant a number 22 ranking on this list, but hear me out. Anthony Davis is one of the youngest players in the NFL. He came into this season at 20 years old.
He has suffered through the aches and pains of a rookie season. He was on a one dimensional and predictable offense, which didn't help matters whatsoever.
Davis had a poor first half of the season, but after Week 13, it seemed like he fell into a groove and started improving week to week. He seemed to gain some level of comfort as the season went on and it will be interesting to see how he develops going forward. Don't be surprised if he is the starting left tackle in 2014 or so.
David Baas doesn't deserve to be lower because he was put in an unfavorable position to begin with. He is not a center. He is a guard. When Eric Heitman broke his leg, he filled in to the best of his abilities. While he wasn't the worst center in the world, he left something to be desired.
On several occasions, he let the snap get away from him. In one instance, that poor snap resulted in a safety. Baas should give right guard Chilo Rachal a run for his money next season. Eric Heitman will unquestionably be the center in 2011, but Baas provides depth on the o-line, if nothing else.
Even so, Baas was a liability for the 49ers in 2010. Center isn't necessarily a position that is going to have a huge impact on games, but his inability to get the ball to the quarterback at times is an elementary problem to have.
Parys Haralson ended up being benched for Ahmad Brooks. Haralson had an outstanding year in 2008, but has regressed every year since then. The 49ers are desperately seeking an outside linebacker who can get to the quarterback.
While Ahmad Brooks was originally put in to substitute Manny Lawson on passing situations, he filled into the full time role when Haralson showed vulnerability against the pass and run. If Brooks' candidacy qualified for this list, he would be higher.
As it stands, Haralson is the 4th best outside linebacker in the rotation. His steady decline over the past few years is not a positive sign going forward. He is not a bad 4th outside linebacker, but he does not appear to be tapping in to his potential.
This will probably be the ranking that draws the most criticism. Nate Clements was brought in to be a shut down corner. He was given a 90 million dollar contract and was expected to eliminate the number one receiver on the opposing team.
He is remains a physical corner, but that is about all he does correctly. He had three picks this season and led the team in passes defended. That does not make up for the amount of times he was taken advantage of.
Roddy White 104 yards
David Gettis 125 yards
Brandon Lloyd 169 yards
Greg Jennings 122 yards
Vincent Jackson 122 yards 3 Touchdowns
Larry Fitzgerald 125 yards
I understand that he was not constantly responsible for coverage on all of these individuals, but that is part of the problem isn't it? His nickname is 'Lock Down". That means he should be able to jam his receiver at the line and defeat nearly every team's number one receiver. Instead, just about every big name guy comes in and destroys Clements.
I went back and forth between putting the Vincent Jackson catch where Clements is burned, despite giving Jackson a 12 yard cushion and the one I finally decided upon. Enjoy.
Offensive line was a weak point once again for the 49ers in 2010. Joe Staley and Eric Heitman were injured and Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati were rookies. That leaves Chilo Rachal as the one guy who should have stood out as a model for consistency amongst the chaos.
Rachal stood out as the weakest and most inconsistent lineman for most of the season. He burst onto the scene his rookie year and has wavered ever since. While he looks the part at times, he looks out of sorts at other times.
Rachal might not need a replacement just yet, but it is clear that he needs to revert back to his play when he first came into the league. It is unclear if he has lost his hunger to excel or if a few solid games in his rookie campaign raised expectations too high.
Regardless, Rachal had an adverse effect on pass protection and in the run game. As it stands, he is the weak link on the offensive line and coach Harbaugh will likely recognize his hit or miss style of play when he breaks down film.
No surprise here. Alex Smith had a lot of reasons to fail, and he did so in epic fashion. There is a philosophy that states that the first year, you give the guy the benefit of the doubt, the second year, he needs to show improvement, if in the the third year, he still struggles...find a new guy.
Well this was year six, and heading into Week 16, most 49er fans still had no idea who the quarterback was going to be. Smith was drafted number one overall to a team that was in shambles. He is a great character guy, but between a lack luster offensive line, a new coordinator nearly every year, and a revolving door in the coach's office Smith simply could not get it done.
He has looked great at times. At others, he looked flat out miserable. His performance was not graded week to week, but rather drive to drive this season. Even when he had solid protection, most of his passes were suspect.
If Alex Smith would have entered the team as a 20 year old under Jim Harbaugh with this team, his career probably would have turned out differently. As it stands, Smith is 26. He could excel in the right system, but the odds of his relationship with the 49ers developing into a seven year itch seems unlikely.
For nearly a decade now, the 49ers have seen inadequacy at the quarterback position. I suppose they are paying their dues, as it is not fair to have back to back Hall of Fame quarterbacks and not suffer a bit immediately there after.
Keep in mind I did not name the video above. I just feel it does a solid job of showcasing Alex Smith's poor decision making even with adequate protection at times.