Willis and Gore rank 1-2 among 49ers' best players
Who are the top 49ers entering the 2011 season? Here is how NinersDigest ranks them heading into Sunday's opener against defending NFC West champion Seattle, basing this comprehensive list – which will be updated periodically throughout the year – on production and performance on and off the field, a player's value to the 49ers and his standing throughout the league at his position.
1. LB Patrick Willis
A Pro Bowler in each of his first four NFL seasons, a first-team All-Pro in three of them and the league’s leading tackler in two, Willis is one of the greatest players in today’s NFL as he enters his fifth year with the 49ers. At the tender age of 26, Willis still is entering his prime as he rides a career projectile that has him steering directly towards pro football’s Hall of Fame. With new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 system looking to feature Willis in new ways and further exploit his extraordinary package of driven talent and sideline-to-sideline production, Willis again will roam the turf this season as one of the most elite of all NFL defenders.
2. RB Frank Gore
The team’s best player until Willis came along, the seventh-year running back remains San Francisco’s offensive catalyst as the 49ers switch to a new offensive system that will further highlight his all-around skills as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. After signing a three-year, $21 million contract extension at the end of August, Gore is healthy, happy and eager to pick up where he left off last season before a fractured right hip forced him to miss San Francisco’s final five games. A two-time Pro Bowler, Gore already holds a slew of significant team records and needs 931 yards on the ground this season to become the Niners’ all-time leading rusher.
3. DT Justin Smith
Smith just keeps getting better and better as he enters his 11th NFL season, and he has developed into a true star since joining the Niners as a high-priced free agent in 2008. Some questioned the high cost of the $45 million deal the 49ers gave Smith then, but he has proven to be well worth the expenditure. An intense and productive performer, Smith leads by example and has been a positive and revered presence both on the field and in the San Francisco locker room. After finishing the past two seasons in the Pro Bowl – the first two trips there of his career – Smith has established himself as one of the NFL’s toughest and most relentless defensive linemen.
4. TE Vernon Davis
It’s a close call between Davis and Smith, because Davis also has elevated his game and career to a different level with the 49ers over the past two years, becoming one of the most complete tight ends in the league and also one of the most dangerous as an offensive threat. Davis last season became the first tight end in franchise history to lead the 49ers in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions two consecutive years, and his exceptional 16.3-yard average on 56 catches last season further establishes Davis as one of the top game-breaking deep threats at his position in today’s NFL.
5. WR Braylon Edwards
New to the 49ers this season, the seventh-year veteran moves in as one of the team’s top five players based on what Edwards has accomplished so far in the NFL and the potential of what he has shown he can do for the 49ers so far this summer. As San Francisco implements a West Coast offensive system that figures to make good use of Edwards’ big body and pass-catching skills, the 6-foot-3 playmaker could establish himself as the legitimate No. 1 wideout the 49ers haven’t had since Terrell Owens left the team after the 2003 season.
6. SS Donte Whitner
Another newcomer to the team, Whitner already has settled in as the new leader of San Francisco’s revamped secondary that already is looking to the sixth-year veteran as the quarterback of the unit. A former high first-round draft pick like four of the five 49ers listed ahead of him, Whitner blossomed as a force around the line of scrimmage last season when he led all NFL safeties and finished fifth in the league with 140 tackles. He’ll be in the box often in San Francisco’s defensive packages, and also will have increased coverage responsibilities as the 49ers look to improve on their No. 24 finish last season in the NFL rankings for passing defense.
7. OG Mike Iupati
Is the second-year mauler already San Francisco’s best offensive lineman? Iupati took some mighty steps toward that status near the end of last season, which finished with the 2010 first-round draft pick landing on the NFL’s All-Rookie team. The 331-pound Iupati possesses great promise to be a dominant force in the trenches, and he ranks ahead of veteran offensive linemen Joe Staley and Jonathan Goodwin on this list based on his star potential, though Iupati still needs to develop polish and consistency as a pass protector to reach that level.
8. OLB Ahmad Brooks
The sixth-year veteran promises to be the new breakout performer in San Francisco’s tweaked 3-4 defensive system as he makes the transition from situational player to full-time starter. Brooks had 11 sacks over the past two seasons in role that saw him on the field primarily on passing downs. Brooks has made an encouraging transition to the outside after beginning his career as an inside linebacker, and he has displayed this summer that he’s ready to handle the high demands of a key position in a defense that will look to Brooks to become one of its top playmakers.
9. K David Akers
Nobody on the San Francisco roster has been to more Pro Bowls than Akers, the newcomer who made it to the NFL’s annual All-Star game five times with the Philadelphia Eagles, including after each of the past two seasons. Akers is the NFL’s leading scorer of the 21st century with 1,312 points over the past 11 seasons, including consecutive seasons of 144, 139 and 143 points the past three years. At age 36, the 13th-year veteran still appears to have plenty left in his prolific left leg, as evidenced in San Francisco’s preseason opener this summer when Akers made a 59-yard field goal – the longest of his distinguished career – in his first attempt as a 49er.
10. P Andy Lee
Full-time players who are on the field for much more of the action than kicking specialists obviously get weighted consideration on this list, but just like Akers, it’s difficult to pass over San Francisco’s two-time Pro Bowl punter who has been such a weapon for the 49ers over recent seasons in the battle for field position. Lee has been called upon to get the 49ers out of a lot of deep holes, and he has responded consistently with his booming right leg averaging 47.2 yards per punt over the past four seasons, a figure that ranks third in the NFL. Lee belongs on this list of the Niners’ most accomplished players until somebody else can do enough to push him off.
ON THE BUBBLE: WR Michael Crabtree, OT Joe Staley, CB Carlos Rogers, WR Josh Morgan, QB Alex Smith.
NOT CONSIDERED (INJURED): FS Dashon Goldson, CB Shawntae Spencer, SS/FS Reggie Smith