Best talent doesn't make 49ers best in West

Willis universally considered NFCW's best defender

The recent rankings by Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. that has the 49ers dominating the list of top players in the NFC West sent us searching for more validation that San Francisco's indeed considered the most talented team in the division. As far as having the best of the best on their roster, there seems to be no question that distinction belongs to the 49ers, not that it's doing them much good.

Williamson, who "watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com," according to the web site, earlier this month ranked the top 15 players in the NFC West, rankings that were top-heavy with 49ers, who landed three players in the top five, five in the top 10 and six of the 15 players recognized overall.

While listing Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald as the best player in the division – which seems to be a universal opinion in player rankings that we studied – Williamson had the Niners owning the next three best players with linebacker Patrick Willis No. 2, defensive end Justin Smith No. 3 and tight end Vernon Davis No. 4.

Aubrayo Franklin, a nose tackle who appears increasingly likely to leave the 49ers in free agency this year, was ranked sixth and offensive lineman Mike Iupati was 10th. Running back Frank Gore also made the list at No. 13.

The only other team with multiple selections in the top 10 was Seattle, which had four picks in the top 15. Arizona had three players recognized on the list and St. Louis just two.

Those rankings generally hold up in examinations of other best-players lists, which are scarcer than usual this offseason as several annual publications have held off releasing their season previews ostensibly because of the NFL lockout.

Two notable omissions on Williamson's list are St. Louis running back Steven Jackson and Arizona safety Adrian Wilson, both of whom are prominent in other rankings, particularly at their positions. But otherwise, there is general agreement that San Francisco has the best players in the NFC West.

In the NFL Network's Top 100 players of 2011, which the network says is determined by a vote of NFL players, the 49ers were the only NFC West team with three players selected. Arizona had two players mentioned and St. Louis one. No member of the Seattle roster was deemed worthy by their peers of being among the league's best 100 players.

Fitzgerald, again, was considered the division's top dog, coming in at No. 14. Willis was next at No. 23 and Jackson came in at No. 38. There was a long gap before a NFC West player appeared again, with Davis coming in at No. 88, Wilson at No. 89 and Gore at No. 94.

Just as Jackson and Wilson were conspicuously left off the NFC West top 15, so was Smith on the NFLN's top 100. But all three of those players were prominent in Lindy's Sports Pro Football 2011 preview, which has detailed rankings of NFL players at every position.

In Lindy's player ratings, Smith came in at No. 4 among the league's top 10 right defensive ends, the highest ranking for any NFC West defensive lineman. Arizona's Calais Campbell – ranked 14th overall in the NFC West by Williamson – was No. 5 among left defensive ends, where San Francisco's Isaac Sopoaga rounded out the top 10 at No. 10.

Lindy's rankings went 10 deep at most positions and 15 deep at others. And the top rankings at their positions of NFC West players both belonged to the 49ers. Willis was ranked as the NFL's No. 2 inside linebacker (in a 3-4 defense) and Davis was ranked No. 2 among the league's top 15 tight ends.

Fitzgerald was No. 3 among No. 1 wide receivers, while Arizona's Steve Breaston held down a No. 9 ranking among No. 2 wide receivers. They were the only NFC West wideouts to appear in Lindy's ratings.

Jackson was No. 3 among "ground-based" running backs, while Gore was rated No. 3 among "all-around" running backs. Wilson also held down a No. 3 rating among the league's top 15 strong safeties.

No other NFC West player was ranked higher than No. 5 at any position. St. Louis' James Laurinaitis was rated fifth among middle linebackers in a 4-3 defense and Seattle's Leon Washington was rated fifth among third running backs, the only category in the ratings that listed only five players.

Niners fullback Moran Norris also appeared in the rankings, coming in at No. 9 among the top 10 at his position.

The 49ers, of course, also were regarded by many as the most talented team in the NFC West before the 2010 season. That distinction didn't seem to mean much after San Francisco, the consensus preseason division favorite, unraveled during a 6-10 season, finishing third in the division behind Seattle and St. Louis despite tying the Seahawks for the NFC West's best intra-division record at 4-2.

As ESPN's Mike Sando said in an item examining Williamson's NFC West rankings, "Even San Francisco 49ers fans should resist annual proclamations identifying their team as the most talented in the NFC West. … Those alleged talent advantages have failed to produce a winning record or even a division championship. The lesson is clear. Shaky coaching and quarterback play more than offset talent at other positions."

The 49ers have a new head coach this year, and Jim Harbaugh is obviously the most talented offensive mind the team has had in that position since Steve Mariucci was unceremoniously fired after the 2002 season, San Francisco's last to finish with a winning record and playoff berth.

Harbaugh will work this year on making a new quarterback out of Alex Smith, who has the talent but so far has been the epitome of the "shaky quarterback play" that Sando mentions. The 49ers also have fresh talent that's full of potential behind Smith in rookie second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick, who's being groomed as the team's QB of the future unless Smith proves he's good enough to hold onto the job.

Perhaps if a few of those guys come through for the 49ers in 2011, then having the best talent in the NFC West might actually mean something.

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