It has been 16 years since the Niners sent a double-digit contingent of players to the Pro Bowl, but they could realistically approach that number this year, which is amazing for a team that has only one true lock on offense – and it’s likely running back Frank Gore will be San Francisco’s only representative on that side of the ball.
But the 49ers have top contenders all over the place on defense and special teams, and San Francisco will have multiple selections from each of those two units that have performed among the NFL’s best from start to finish this season.
If the 49ers sneak in a few surprise picks – and judging on merit, maybe they wouldn’t be such surprises – then they will easily score their biggest Pro Bowl bonanza of the 21st century (six selections in 2001 and 2002 is the current standard) and could have their largest contingent since having 10 players named to the NFC squad in 1995.
Here, we look at the chances of every 49er who has surfaced this season at least on the periphery of Pro Bowl discussion:
DEFENSIVE END JUSTIN SMITH
The case for: Smith has been named to two consecutive Pro Bowls, but this is the season that the 11th-year veteran really has gotten his due throughout the NFL as one of the league’s premier defensive lineman. His name has popped up in discussion for league MVP honors, and coach Jim Harbaugh already is calling Smith the 49ers’ team MVP this year. He may be the best run-stuffing 3-4 end in the league, which says a lot for a 285-pounder, and his 6.5 sacks and three forced fumbles also shed light on his all-around impact.
The case against: Smith doesn’t have the sack numbers of Minnesota’s Jared Allen (NFL-leading 18.5 sacks), Philadelphia’s Jason Babin (18.0) and New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul (15.5 sacks, 81 tackles), and those kind of sack numbers usually practically guarantee a Pro Bowl bid. St. Louis’ Chris Long (13 sacks) and Chicago’s Julius Peppers (10 sacks) also are having Pro Bowl-worthy seasons at this star-studded position.
RUNNING BACK FRANK GORE
The case for: Gore has been the driving force behind an offense that has ridden its workhorse to 12-win success despite a passing game that ranks just 29th in the NFL. He won’t approach his team-record 1,695-yard season in 2006 that made him the NFC’s starter that season, but in several ways this has been his signature season. With 1,202 yards and eight touchdowns rushing, Gore ranks fourth among the NFL’s leading rushers and is second in the NFC to Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy, who should be the only player who could stand between Gore becoming the NFC’s starting running back for the second time in his career.
The case against: It’s difficult to make any case for Gore not making it to the NFL’s All-Star game for the third time in his career. McCoy is a lock, and Atlanta’s Michael Turner (1,129 yards, 8 TDs rushing) and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (1,118 yards, 12 TDs rushing) also are having tremendous seasons, but not good enough to bump Gore.
KICKER DAVID AKERS
The case for: Akers is having one of the greatest seasons by a kicker in NFL history. He set a new league record last week for most field goals in a season that now stands at 42, and he’s 7 for 9 from beyond 50 yards. He’s the NFL’s runaway leading scorer with a team-record 156 points, and he has averaged 66.1 yards on his 86 kickoffs with 45 going for touchbacks.
The case against: Dallas’ Dan Bailey has a better percentage of field goals made than Akers (89 percent to 86) percent and ranks second to him in scoring with 133 points. But let’s get serious here. Akers blows away any and all NFL kickers this year and is headed to the sixth Pro Bowl of his sensational career.
PUNTER ANDY LEE
The case for: Lee is having another incredible statistical season that can be viewed as one of the best in NFL history, considering his current 50.5 net average is the third-best in league history and his 43.5 net average ranks second. He has played a big factor in San Francisco winning the battle for field position every week. He’s having an All-Pro-caliber season and is blowing away the competition in the NFC.
The case against: Kicking in a dome, New Orleans’ Thomas Morstead is having a tremendous season for one of the NFL’s best teams. But like everyone else in the conference, he is biting Lee’s dust.
LINEBACKER PATRICK WILLIS
The case for: A month ago, Willis was a leading contender for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors and was the unquestioned leader of the league’s top-ranked rushing defense. He also was making plays all over the field, whether it be making tackles (115 in 12 games), rushing the passer (two sacks), defending the pass (one interception, 12 passes defensed) or forcing turnovers (four forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered). Those numbers haven’t improved because Willis hasn’t played in San Francisco’s past three games, but everybody around the NFL knows he’s the best, and he’ll get that respect in Pro Bowl voting.
The case against: Willis has missed almost four full games because of a hamstring injury, and that kind of inactive stretch typically could doom a player’s Pro Bowl candidacy. But Willis did enough before his injury to let everybody know what’s up.
LINEBACKER NAVORRO BOWMAN
The case for: Bowman has been San Francisco’s leading tackler throughout the season and even out-played Willis in several games before Willis was hurt. He has continued to hold strong in the middle of San Francisco’s defense even without Willis next to him to garner attention from opponents. Bowman ranks fifth in the NFL with 133 tackles and got a lot of recognition around the league for making big plays in big games and being a key cog in the league’s No. 1 rushing defense.
The case against: Only three middle linebackers typically make the Pro Bowl, and will the 49ers have two of them? Washington’s London Fletcher leads the NFL with 163 tackles, so he would seem a deserving choice. Bowman, in his second season, doesn’t have the name recognition of some other veteran inside linebackers who are having fine seasons - Chicago perennial Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher in particular.
CORNERBACK CARLOS ROGERS
The case for: Rogers has been the top cover corner for the NFC’s hands-down best defense, and he has been around the football all season and has a knack for making big plays. Rogers is tied for second in the NFC with six interceptions – second in the conference among cornerbacks – and ranks among the NFL leaders with 24 passes defensed.
The case against: Despite their defensive success, the 49ers rank only 17th in the NFL in pass defense. Rogers should be close to a lock, but one spot here will go to Green Bay’s Charles Woodson and Rogers will face competition from several other established corners who have at least one Pro Bowl in their past. Rogers has none, but this should be his first.
FREE SAFETY DASHON GOLDSON
The case for: Goldson returned to his 2009 form this year while establishing himself as a ballhawk and big hitter as the last line of San Francisco’s rugged defense. He leads all NFC safeties with six interceptions and has been solid in run support. He also has forced a fumble and recovered one.
The case against: Goldson missed San Francisco’s first two games, but has more than made up for that lost time since. He clearly appears to be the NFC’s top free safety this season, though New York’s Antrel Rolle and Seattle’s Earl Thomas both offer a challenge.
OFFENSIVE TACKLE JOE STALEY
The case for: Staley is one of the NFC’s emerging young tackles and he has had several impressive games this season protecting quarterback Alex Smith’s blind side. He finished fourth among the NFC leaders at tackle this year in fan voting.
The case against: Staley could be aced out by more established names who performed well this season for better offenses. He’s an up-and-comer, but it may be difficult for him to get the nod ahead of any of a group that includes Philadelphia’s Jason Peters, Atlanta’s Tyson Clabo, Carolina’s Jordan Gross, Detroit’s Jeff Backus or either of Green Bay’s starting tackles, Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga.
TIGHT END VERNON DAVIS
The case for: Davis isn’t having a huge statistical season like the past two seasons, but people in the know realize how talented he is and how valuable his all-around play has been to San Francisco’s success this year. His name still is established among the NFC’s top tight ends and his visibility as one of the 49ers’ top offensive players helps his cause.
The case against: Davis simply can’t compete with the numbers being put up this season by perennial Pro Bowlers Jason Witten of Dallas and Tony Gonzalez of Atlanta, not to mention Jimmy Graham of New Orleans, who is a lock to be named with his 91 receptions for 1,213 yards and 10 TDs.
LONG-SNAPPER BRIAN JENNINGS
The case for: Jennings long ago established himself as one of the elite long-snappers in the NFL and has played like that most every season over the past decade, earning Pro Bowl honors in 2004. The strong play of San Francisco’s special teams should help his case this season.
The case against: It’s somewhat difficult to determine just what is the criteria selectors are looking for in a long-snapper. Philadelphia’s Jon Dorenbos was the NFC’s Pro Bowl long-snapper last year, and had you ever heard of Dorenbos before reading his name here?
SPECIAL TEAMER BLAKE COSTANZO
The case for: The fiery Costanzo headlines San Francisco’s outstanding special teams units, which offer a couple of players who can be considered here as an at-large player. Costanzo is the top headhunter on San Francisco’s coverage teams and leads those units in tackles.
The case against: Several other special teamers around the league are having strong seasons and can offer better statistical numbers than Costanzo. Chicago’s Corey Graham’s name has come up in several Pro Bowl discussions.
CENTER JONATHAN GOODWIN
The case for: Goodwin has a Pro Bowl in his recent past and has been a stabilizing factor on San Francisco’s young offensive line this year. He clearly has established himself among the top handful of centers in the NFC. Goodwin finished second this year among NFC centers in fan voting to Green Bay’s Scott Wells.
The case against: Wells is the clear frontrunner here, and Carolina’s Ryan Kalil – who represented the NFC at center last season – is considered the first runnerup in the eyes of many. Goodwin appears to be running a distant third to those two.
OFFENSIVE GUARD MIKE IUPATI
The case for: Iupati has a reputation around the league as a mauler in the run game after being named to the NFL’s All-Rookie team last year. He has had a promising sophomore season and is considered one of the league’s top young guards by many. He finished fourth among NFC guards in fan voting.
The case against: Iupati faces considerable competition from more-established name veterans who played for more successful offenses this year, including Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks of the Saints and Chris Snee of New York.
The long shots
QUARTERBACK ALEX SMITH
The case for: A lot has been made of Smith’s part in San Francisco’s success this season, and he has been pumped up as a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate and the NFC’s third-best QB by coach Jim Harbaugh. Smith has solid credentials for Pro Bowl worthiness, including the fewest interceptions thrown by any NFL starter and perhaps the biggest number of all for a quarterback: 12 wins.
The case against: Smith’s name definitely should be considered after Pro Bowl locks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, but that’s about where it ends. No way does he get the nod over guys with superior numbers in superior offenses such as New York’s Eli Manning and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER ALDON SMITH
The case for: Even though he mostly lines up at defensive end in San Francisco’s nickel coverage packages, Smith is getting some serious Pro Bowl consideration in some circles at this position for his pass-rushing exploits. On the verge of setting a NFL rookie record for sacks in a season, Smith currently ranks fifth in the NFL with 14 sacks, and ranks second in most sacks per play.
The case against: San Francisco’s first-round draft pick is basically a part-time player who has played little as an actual linebacker in defensive sets. Would the selectors take a first-year player with those credentials over more established every-down players such as Minnesota’s Chad Greenway and Chicago’s Lance Briggs? Smith’s own teammate, Ahmad Brooks, also has thrown his name into the consideration with his consistently strong overall play.
FULLBACK BRUCE MILLER
The case for: Miller stepped in as the starter as a rookie and established himself as a quality blocker for Frank Gore who also can do things with the football in his hands, as evidenced by a 30-yard touchdown reception this season that served notice he was a fullback who had to be watched the rest of the season. Surprisingly, Miller finished second in fan voting among NFC fullbacks to Green Bay’s John Kuhn.
The case against: Only one fullback represents each conference, and Miller has virtually no shot at getting the nod ahead of Kuhn, everybody’s NFC favorite who has scored six touchdown this season for defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay, the conference’s top team.
KICK RETURNER TED GINN JR.
The case for: Ginn has had a quality season as a dangerous return specialist who is among the league leaders returning both kickoffs (27.6-yard average) and punts (12.3 average). He has returned two kicks for touchdowns this season and has had several other big returns that have been key for the 49ers.
The case against: Unfortunately for Ginn, he plays in the same conference as Chicago’s Devin Hester and Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson, who established themselves as the NFL’s top two return specialists this season.