The 49ers under new head coach Jim Harbaugh last season spoke consistently about the team concept and putting the good of the whole over the individual.
But in doing so and forging a 13-3 record, the team’s best players have been noticed by their peers.
Seven Niners were voted by the league’s athletes onto the list of the NFL’s top 100 players – tying with the Baltimore Ravens for the most players from any team.
Linebacker Patrick Willis was the highest-rated player at No. 10, followed by defensive end Justin Smith (17), running back Frank Gore (28), tight end Vernon Davis (43), offensive tackle Joe Staley (67), cornerback Carlos Rogers (69) and linebacker NaVorro Bowman (85).
It’s notable that four of the players on the top 100 list published by NFL.com were on a defensive unit that was one of the NFL’s best in 2011, and two of those were athletic inside linebackers Willis and Bowman.
The duo form the core of a defensive unit that flies to the ball and shuts down opposing running games. Last year, the 49ers allowed a league-low 77.2 yards rushing per game while also giving up just 14.3 points per game, second in the NFL behind Pittsburgh.
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, in writing about Willis’ inclusion at No. 10 on the list, noted that the linebacker is one of the league’s most dynamic players.
“Willis could go down as the most consistently dominant defensive player of his era,” wrote Rosenthal. “There hasn’t been a linebacker with his vast skill set since … Ray Lewis. Willis can do anything he’s asked by the San Francisco 49ers and can do it well. … He’s one of the 10 best players in the league.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees talked about the Willis-Bowman tandem after New Orleans lost to San Francisco in the playoffs last season, saying the linebacking corps was a big reason running back Darren Sproles was held in check.
“A huge part of their success is their ability to stop the run and rush the passer,” Brees told The Sporting News after that game. “And when you catch the ball, they are going to light you up and try to get the ball out.”
Last season, the Niners’ defense led the NFL with a plus-28 takeaway-giveaway margin, intercepting 23 passes and recovering 15 fumbles.
Smith, Rogers, Willis and Bowman are at the heart of that opportunistic defense.
“Every time we step on that field, it’s not about giving the other teams anything,” Willis said in January. “It’s something that Coach Harbaugh talks about all of the time: cruelty.
“It’s not giving another person what they want. That’s our mind-set on defense, to go out and play with everything we have and not give the other team anything. If they do get something, oh, well, let’s go and take it back.”
On the list of the top 100, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers – whom the 49ers will face in this season’s opener – was ranked No. 1.