The Niners are a very tough team to rank. They have no obvious best player. Their talent is spread around fairly evenly and everyone fills a role. Unlike Peyton or Brady their leader, Frank Gore, is not their most dangerous player. For purposes of this ranking I am taking into consideration - talent, value of position played (ie QB is more important than middle linebacker), leadership qualities, and danger to the other team.
#1 - Justin Smith. The strength of the Niners is our defense and Smith is the centerpiece. Willis and Bowman might be more talented and even better players, but in some ways, the presence of both devalue each other to the team. Smith is the guy that cannot be replaced. He is the guy that stuffs the line of scrimmage and enables the Niners to stop the run with 6 or 7 guys. Last year, when he went out, our defense (including Aldon Smith) was a shell of itself.
#2 - Vernon Davis. Ask any offensive coordinator playing the Niners, and I guarantee he's most worried about 85. He is the Niners only true deep threat and poses a match up problem for every NFL defense. He is too fast to be covered by linebackers and too big to be covered by cornerbacks. Without Davis to stretch the field, our offense struggles.
#3 and #4 - NaVarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. I can't separate the two. Bowmen by all accounts has had a better year. That play against the Falcons to win the game was one of the most amazing defensive plays I've ever seen. But according to other NFL players, Willis is like number 5 of who they are most afraid of on the field. Willis is a maniac and has been an All-Pro linebacker ever since he entered the league.
#5 - Joe Staley. I have trouble evaluating offensive line play, but by some accounts he's considered one of the best left tackles in football. He's played almost every game and neither our QB or our RB got hurt all season. He must be doing something right.
#6 - Anquan Boldin. He is our 3rd down security blanket. I would vote him offensive MVP of the year. He doesn't have the talent or the speed, but he has the skills. I've never appreciated how good he was until watching him play all year. He is the antidote to "tough" defenses like the Seahawks and the Panthers. He is tougher and meaner and stronger than any of the D-backs on any of those teams and cannot be intimidated by them. The man played once with a broken face. A broken face!
#7 - Ahmad Brooks. He gets overshadowed by Willis and Bowman, but the guy is one of the best linebackers in the league and just happens to play with the best tandem in a generation. Really amazing.
#8 - Kaepernick. I don't honestly know where to put the guy. Part of me thinks he belongs higher because if he were out of the game, we'd be in trouble. But that's simply because we don't have a good back up QB. I think this Niners team would be pretty awesome with almost any league average QB. And I can't tell is Kaepernick is above or below league average. Part of me almost wants to put him lower because of this factor. He's a unique player, that's for sure. His running ability must give defenses nightmares. But he WILL may a mistake or several every single game and he gives me nightmares as a fan as well.
#9 - Frank Gore. Gore deserves to be higher, but he plays running back and is on the downside of his career. He isn't as big a danger to make big plays as he used to be, but he knows how to hit the right hole and pick up 3-5 yards on first and second down. He gives the Niners their identity as a run-first offense. He is a leader and the heart and soul of the team on the field. He's not higher, because they'd survive without him and the true heart and soul is Harbaugh.
#10 - Donte Whitner. Love this guy. Hits hard and hits legal. Our sweeper in the secondary.
#11 - Mike Iputi/Alex Boone. Watch the Niners get a big push on run plays. These guys are why.
#12 - Michael Crabtree. He might be our most talented weapon next to Davis. He's got great hands. We are much more dangerous when he plays. In terms of "value," because of his youth, he's up there. But we are still a pretty good team without him. He's been injured and a non-factor a number of times. He disappeared in big games and people blamed Alex Smith, but I'm not so sure. Boldin had big games as the only receiving threat. And he doesn't break long gains. But look at this 2-12 ranking...Crabtree is pretty close to being as good as Davis and this is a testament to the Niners greatest strength...all around depth at position play (not bench).
#13 - Ray McDonald. Another big part of the Niners vaunted "front seven."
#14 - Terrell Brown/Carlos Rodgers/Eric Reid - all guys are solid as far as I can tell, but none really stand out as A-list cornerbacks/safeties yet. Reid played well at the beginning of the year, but has not been as big a presence lately.
#15 - Andy Lee. A great punter. Adds value.
#16 - Phil Dawson. Also a good place kicker. Hits the one's he needs to.
#17 - Bruce Miller. A very effective fullback, unfortunately injured. Our biggest injury problem because even though Ian Williams is good, his replacement, Glenn Dorsey is playing well.
#18 - Kendall Hunter. An effective 2nd running back, but will probably never be a number 1 running back.
#19 - Jonathan Goodwin. A solid center. Probably deserves to be higher.
#20 - Glenn Dorsey. Filling in at nose tackle, done a very good job.