Defining “value” is far more of an art then a science, especially in football where the world of advanced statistical metrics is far more ambiguous than in baseball and basketball. It's difficult to quantify. There's no equivalent to "WAR" or "Win Shares."
There are far too many changing variables, human elements, game plans, situational circumstances and many, many more factors to look at. Players that mesh perfectly in some schemes won’t fit in others - regardless of skill level.
Trying to create a definition of value in relation to football requires a broad look a team’s overall landscape. For example, an aging player who plays at a high level will have far more value to a contending team with an open championship window. Whereas that same player would be less valuable on a bad team because he’s making too much money and impeding the progress of a younger player in need of development.
For the 49ers, it’s clear the championship window is wide open for 2014, and perhaps beyond. Although 2015 is murky as Jim Harbaugh enters his “lame duck” contract year.
A key factor in San Francisco’s championship window remaining open has been the front office’s ability to create value by drafting good young players, while keeping productive veterans around at good prices.
Here, we’ll list the 49ers’ 10-most valuable players based on these factors. We’ll look at production level, position, age, contract, versatility and fit most predominately. When evaluating these variables, the conversation goes well beyond ‘player X is the best player, or the most important player.’ Value is not limited to those parameters. And teams gauge value based on even more factors than we’ll look at here.
Age is simple. An older player that might not be able to play the same volume of snaps as a younger player won’t carry the same the value. There are older players that still play at high levels, but if that player is on the field less, it could take away from his value. But age isn’t necessarily confined by a number. Some players have longer physical primes than others, particularly at different positions.
Given salary cap restrictions, contracts play a huge role in value. Players that exceed their annual pay have far more value considering their low cap number can help make the team better by having more money to allocate elsewhere (assuming that player isn’t holding out, of course). Conversely, there’s nothing less valuable than a player taking up a significant chunk of cap space that isn’t all that productive. If Nate Clements is reading this: Hi, Nate!
Versatility and fit are tied together. For a player to be versatile, he must bring a sense of mystery to the field. A player cannot have much value if the opponent knows what’s going to happen when he joins the huddle. For instance, what makes Bruce Miller a good fullback for San Francisco is his ability to not only to lead block, but also act as a viable check-down option in the passing game. When most fullbacks enter a game, it’s because the team is running the ball. Fit is along those same lines, but is more about making the coaches’ scheme as successful as possible.
Here's the list of the 10-most valuable 49ers as things currently stand.
No. 10: Justin Smith
If you caught the hint in that preamble, Smith rounds out the list because of his age (34), cap number for the coming year ($6.37 million) and recent injury history that’s led to a seasonal decline in snaps played. Smith dealt with a triceps tear in 2012 and a secret shoulder injury last year that bled into his production, particularly against the run. He played 73.3 percent of his snaps in 2013 after playing 87.8 percent during the team’s Super Bowl run.
Smith remains a vital piece to the team’s talented defense. But he’s the team’s oldest player with the third-highest cap number. Smith gets the benefit of the doubt because of the type of player he was when healthy during the earlier stage of his 49ers career. But with Father Time catching up to him and his snap count likely to take another hit in 2014 while the team incorporates Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial, Smith’s value isn’t what it once was.
That’s not to say Smith can’t return to 90 percent of the player he was in 2011 when he was one of the league’s best defensive linemen. That would surely move him up this (inconsequential) list. But for now, Smith lands at 10.
No. 9: Frank Gore
The bell cow. The heart and soul. The football Yoda. That’s Frank Gore. He’s the heart beat of the locker room and perhaps the team’s most respected player. His ability to run between the tackles, slip through the smallest of holes and outrun his physical limitations make him incredibly valuable.
But Gore’s value takes a hit, at least here, because of the way Carlos Hyde has looked so far in training camp. Part of assessing value is looking at replacement options, and Hyde looks like a very good insurance policy for No. 21. If what we’ve seen in camp is an indication of what’s to come from Hyde, Gore unfairly loses value because of his backup.
Gore, 31, is entering the last year of his contract and will count for $6.45 million against the cap. He’s versatile, because not only is he a good runner, he’s a better pass protector. He’s been the best at the league in blitz pickup for a few years now, and that should continue even as he ages. Gore looks like he’s in great shape and he loves the fact that people are counting him out because of his age. But Hyde waiting in the wings ultimately puts Gore at No. 9.
No. 8: Anquan Boldin
Yes, the theme of the early portion of the list is age. Boldin, 34 in October, was given the Bill Walsh Award during his first season with the team in 2013, voted on by coaches as the team’s most valuable player. It’s hard to imagine where the 49ers would have been in 2013 if not for Boldin, who they somehow acquired for a sixth-round pick from the Ravens two springs ago.
The 49ers have struggled to draft receivers for a long time and Boldin came in right away to be the team’s No. 1 option in just about every situation. He was one of the best receivers in the league on third down and he helped the offense overachieve considering the remaining talent on the outside with Michael Crabtree hurt.
But like Gore, Boldin’s decreased value in this list is no fault of his own. Crabtree is healthy and the team brought in Stevie Johnson, who is capable of starting on half the teams in the NFL despite a down year in 2013. Boldin will still be the main attraction on third down, and is as hungry as anyone on the roster to get back to the Super Bowl, where he had so much success against the 49ers two seasons ago.
No. 7: Eric Reid
A young guy! A case could be made that Reid should be higher on this list given the way he produced so early in his career at the uber-affordable price of a rookie. He had no problem adjusting the pro game both on and off the field, becoming a mature figure on the back end of the defense while not incurring a penalty the entire season. For a safety, that’s an impressive feat considering the way the rules continue to curb towards the offense.
If there’s a knock on Reid, it’s the concussion issue. He suffered two last season, although he made every start.
Reid happened to save his worst game of the year for NFC Championship Game in Seattle.
But if Reid, just 22, develops as he should in his second pro season, there’s no reason why he won’t be one one of the best free safeties in the league for seasons to come. He’s too big, too fast and too smart not to. And having one of the league’s best front sevens in front of him plays a big role as well. Reid’s value lies in his age, contract and upside. The last first-round pick the 49ers used on a defender to make a Pro Bowl in his first season? Patrick Willis.
No. 6: Aldon Smith
All the off-the-field issues have to be factored in, and that includes his potential suspension to start the season. But Smith is still just 24 and plays a position that could completely wreck a game for an opponent. When physically fit and fully engaged, Smith is usually the best player on the field.
He’s versatile. He can hold the edge against the run and remains one of the league’s best pass rushers. The few seasons prior to Smith’s arrival the 49ers’ defense was adequate, but lacked an elite pass rusher. He tied up that loose end and suddenly the defense made the jump from ‘good’ to ‘elite.’ Smith had 14 sacks in a limited role as a rookie before playing all three downs in 2012, when he had 19.5 sacks in his second season.
There is no more physically gifted player on the roster than Smith. The 49ers brass knows that, and it’s why he’s been so coddled throughout his numerous off-the-field transgressions. He can create leverage with his length to bullrush opposing linemen while also being able to outmaneuver them. Smith is under contract for the next two seasons after the 49ers picked up his fifth-year option in 2015 that will make him one of the team's highest-paid players. It was a controversial decision given his instability away from the field, but the right one if the team’s focus is winning games.
The risk with that deal is a hit on Smith’s value, but there’s still a chance the 49ers sign him to a new contract in the meantime that could shrink that 2015 cap number ($9.754 million) to something more manageable while also securing him for seasons to come. In a passing league, there’s no more valuable commodity than being able to consistently pressure the quarterback. If Smith can stay out of trouble, signs a new deal and returns to his 2012 form, his value rises.
No. 5: Vernon Davis
It’s not just the headache he creates for defensive coordinators. Look at the 49ers offense when Davis has been out and his value becomes immense. Davis has been San Francisco’s only deep threat over the last few seasons while also being versatile. His ability to block in the run game is often overlooked. He can run and find linebackers and defensive backs to block as well as any tight end in the league. Davis is also a key player in the red zone.
Last year’s regular season loss to the Panthers is the prime example. The 49ers went into the game with three tight ends and came out with one: rookie Vance McDonald. Davis left early with a concussion while Garrett Celek went out with a hamstring strain. It forced the tight-end heavy offense to switch up its game plan on the fly. At that point the 49ers really didn’t have a chance against Carolina’s up-and-coming defense. In the divisional round of the playoffs in Carolina, Davis scored a touchdown at the end of the first half, catapulting the 49ers to one of their best third quarters of the season. They went on to win 23-10 and earned a trip to the conference championship game.
Davis is the only tight end in league history to have two seasons of 13 touchdown receptions. And he remains the only 49ers player that can fully utilize Colin Kaepernick’s ability to throw the ball 60-yards downfield. Even at 30, he doesn’t appear to have lost a step. And for whatever reason, tight ends’ primes typically last longer, especially those of players with workout habits’ like Davis (see: Gonzalez, Tony).
Davis’ cap number will stay at over $7 million over the next two seasons. But given his overall importance to the functionality of the offense, he’s worth that price. Davis accounted for 13 of the offense’s 21 touchdown grabs in 2013. That’s 62 percent.
No. 4: Patrick Willis
Perhaps the current 49er most likely to go to the Hall of Fame someday, Willis is the team leader and has been the center of the defense since getting drafted in 2007, when he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and won Rookie Defensive Player of the Year.
But past accolades don’t make Willis’ value what it is. He’s the vocal leader of the team, still in his physical prime and one of the three best inside linebackers in football. He can play both Mike and Jack positions in Vic Fangio’s scheme at elite levels making him very versatile.
Willis just doesn’t have any holes in his game.
If there’s one negative to consider, it’s his health. Willis has dealt with a number of hand injuries throughout his football career, including training camp last season. He also had a groin issues that slowed him down early last season that took time to heal.
Willis, 29, is entering the golden age for inside linebackers when mental acuity transcends physical gifts - of which Willis still has plenty. But more than anything, Willis’ presence can’t be replaced, making him very valuable to the 49ers.
No. 3: Colin Kaepernick
There’s no more important position on the field than quarterback. And although Kaepernick struggled throwing the ball during the 2013 regular season, his dual-threat presence on the field makes him a very valuable commodity.
No one knows how much his foot injury hampered his production in 2013. It was clear the 49ers were dialing back the running plays that made him so successful in his first season when he led the team to the Super Bowl. But with his favorite target in Crabtree back and healthy, along with new weapons, Kaepernick could be in for a big year.
Despite signing a new six-year, $126 million deal, Kaepernick’s cap hits going forward don’t take too much away from his overall value. His number this season remains $3.767 million. That gives the team a good deal of cap space that will roll into next year and help the team re-sign Crabtree and perhaps Mike Iupati.
And with a minuscule $13 million in guarantees, Kaepernick’s deal gives the 49ers flexibility going forward. The contract could be re-worked every spring without the restrictions of a big signing bonus to complicate things. The 49ers will have the ability to look at their roster and adjust Kaepernick’s deal accordingly, if Kaepernick is genuine when he says he agreed to the team-friendly agreement in order to help field the best roster possible.
Kaepernick is 26 and provides game plan flexibility should he improve as a pocket passer and continue to be one of the league’s most dangerous running quarterbacks. He’s proven he can win on the road in the playoffs, going 3-1 in his first two seasons as starter. He will just need to do it in a Super Bowl to rid himself of criticism he often receives.
No. 2: NaVorro Bowman
Bowman was the 49ers’ best player of the last two seasons, and that’s something considering who he plays next to. It’s no secret around the league Bowman is league’s best inside linebacker, even with Carolina’s Luke Kuechly taking the Defensive Player of the Year Award last year. Bowman is a fierce run defender with the athleticism to rush the passer at an elite level for the position. He can also cover.
Bowman is just 26, and signed an cheap deal while he continues to help the team create cap space going forward. Bowman’s cap hit in 2014 will be just $4.434 million (Willis' is $6.863) after renegotiating this offseason while he works his way back from his ACL injury. He’s signed through 2018 at his market value, but not above it, with cap hits escalating from $8.4 to $10.1 million.
Bowman’s younger and more athletic than Willis, although Willis might have more straight-line speed. Bowman forced six fumbles last year and had two interceptions, including one of Candlestick Park’s greatest plays when he housed an interception 89 yards to seal the 34-24 win the Falcons, and a playoff berth.
The obvious question is how he recovers from his ACL injury suffered late last year. Ranking Bowman No. 2 comes with the belief the 49ers won’t rush him back to the field and he will eventually return to 100 percent. Even if he’s 90 percent of what he was when he comes back this season, it should be good enough for the 49ers to get where they want to be.
No. 1: Joe Staley
Yes, an offensive lineman takes the top spot. Why? Staley is a perfect storm of value. Not only is he consistently one of the league’s best at the position, in both run blocking and pass blocking, but he’s also one of the most affordable. Staley will be the 22nd-highest paid left tackle in the league in 2014. He’s was Pro Football Focus’ fifth-best left tackle last year after being the best - No. 1 - in 2012.
Think about that. A player that’s gone to the Pro Bowl in three straight seasons, getting paid in the bottom third of the NFL, playing the offense’s second-most important position. Staley will make $3.4 million against the cap in 2014, making him the 14th-highest paid player on the roster.
Of course those numbers elevate over the coming seasons. Staley is signed through 2019. But his highest cap hit will reach $11.15 million in 2017 - but that’s the only season his hit will reach eight figures. There are five left tackles making eight figures against the cap in 2014.
Staley is 29. And given his athleticism, he should remain in physical prime for the remainder of his contract when he’ll be 34. In terms of value, as we define it here, Staley checks every box. Perhaps the 49ers should start selling more No. 74 jerseys.
There are plenty of arguments to be made against Staley as the team’s most valuable player. But the tipping point for me was his $3.4 million cap hit 2014. Staley is worth three times that much, as evident by the volume of left tackles getting that kind of money.
That figure is especially important this year considering the key players up for significant raises in 2015.
With salary cap space rolling over, Staley having such a small number has a sizeable impact on the way the 49ers are approaching next year. Coming into the offseason, Kaepernick, Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Iupati were up after 2014. Staley’s deal went a long way toward getting Kaepernick and Smith (fifth-year option) inked for next year, and will continue to help in negotiations for Crabtree and Iupati. No 49ers player has outperformed their 2014 cap number more than Staley. And no player is helping the 49ers build their roster more, either.
Staley might not be a “better” player than other guys on this list, but his deal allowed for the roster to shape up as it has. That, along with his elite production, pushes him to the top of the list.
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