The 49ers made a lot of progress as a team during the 2011 season, with the improvement of several individuals playing a significant role. Some improved more than others, and these are the five players who made the most individual improvement over the year before, with the upgraded play of each becoming a factor in San Francisco's 14-4 finish and trip to the NFC Championship Game.
1. LB NaVorro Bowman
The 49ers gave Bowman an early opportunity last year during his rookie season to unseat veteran Takeo Spikes
as Patrick Willis
' partner at inside linebacker in the middle of San Francisco's rising 3-4 defense. Bowman wasn't quite ready for the job. This time around, he was more than ready, and his rise as an impact force in the middle was a significant factor in San Francisco's emergence as one of the NFL's toughest, most rugged and effective defensive units. Bowman was a tackle machine throughout the season, leading the 49ers with 178 stops – according to team figures after coaches' review of game film – and finishing seventh in the NFL with 143 tackles, according to the league's official gamebook totals. Bowman never stopped bopping and dropping opponents to the end, recording a game-high 13 tackles in Sunday's NFC Championship against the New York Giants
, which pretty much was an example of the way he played all season. Bowman led all NFL players with 25 tackles during the playoffs, finishing off a stellar season that saw him gain first-team All-Pro honors after starting just one game in his rookie year. He also proved himself in pass coverage as an every-down player who never had to come off the field – and seldom did.
2. OT Anthony Davis
San Francisco's first-round draft pick in 2010, Davis started all 16 games for the 49ers in his rookie season, but his youth and inexperience could be a liability. This season, to put it simply, Davis grew up. He kept himself in better shape and made the commitment it takes to become a starting offensive tackle in the NFL at age 22. According to Pro Football Focus figures, Davis was one of the worst pass-blocking right tackles in the league last season and was the only tackle in the NFL that was responsible for double-digit totals in penalties, sacks and quarterback hits during. This season, Davis committed zero holding penalties, one of his boo-bugs last year. His pass blocking improved markedly over the course of the season and he also became more of a factor clearing out space for San Francisco's running games. Opponents often came after Davis off the right edge, but he held up and proved he's no longer a weakness along a San Francisco offensive line that developed nicely as a unit this season. Davis went from marginal starter in his rookie season to adequate starter this season, and that's a major step for such a young offensive lineman who still was a question mark coming into the season.
3. QB Alex Smith
Because of the high-profile position he plays, and the impact that position has on every game, many would identify Smith as San Francisco's most improved player this year because of the major strides he made as the team's starting quarterback. There's no doubt Smith was much improved this year over previous seasons, but the rate of his improvement was not as pronounced as the players listed above. Smith had shown flashes of ability and production throughout his career, but this season was the first time he put it all together for an extended period. Smith's greatest improvement was in his consistency and reliability, two things that were not his trademark during his first six NFL seasons. Smith improved in several major categories by which quarterbacks are judged, but he also improved in the intangible areas such as decision-making and pocket awareness that are so vital to the success of a quarterback. And if you just want to look at numbers, well, Smith also had a lot of improvement there. He set career highs in practically every passing category, including one of the most important – his 90.7 season passer rating ranked Smith ninth among the NFL's leading quarterbacks. And the way Smith performed amid the high-pressure stakes of the playoffs validated that his improvement was for real.
4. CB Tarell Brown
Earlier in his career – after Brown established himself as a find for the 49ers as the team's fifth-round draft pick in 2007 – there was talk that Brown might be able to develop into a legitimate starting cornerback. He started four games in 2009, but didn't take the next step in 2010, when he didn't start a game and seemed destined for a career role as a No. 3 or No. 4 cornerback. But a new coaching staff came in and gave Brown a shot at the starting lineup from the get-go in training camp, and even though he battled injuries, Brown returned to nail down the starting position at right cornerback before the regular season began. Brown never let go of it, and his grip became tighter as the season progressed. As he solidified his starting spot amongst one of the NFL's premier defensive units, Brown developed into a reliable performer and even a playmaker as the season went on. Brown started all 16 games and had four interceptions in San Francisco's final four games, then added another pick in the playoff opener against New Orleans and Drew Brees
. The 49ers will continue to look for upgrades in their secondary, but now Brown has a firm hold on a starting job at right cornerback that somebody will have to take away from him.
5. WR/KR Kyle Williams
Note that Williams is listed first as a wide receiver above. He also showed some promise this season as a kick returner, but his progress there was negated by his two killer fumbles returning punts last week that cost the 49ers the NFC Championship Game. You have to wonder if Jim Harbaugh will ever trust Williams again in a big game as a returner, whose first responsibility is to secure the football. Despite those gaffes at the end of the season, Williams displayed that he can be a playmaker and explosive commodity in the open field. Williams did basically nothing as a rookie after the Niners selected him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft – he played in only five games and finished the season with just one reception, giving the appearance of a fringe player. But all that changed this season, when Williams displayed during the preseason that he could indeed be a factor, then took advantage of the opportunity that came his way when other wide receivers went down to injury in September and early October. Williams had 16 receptions over a six-game stretch late in the season, and his three touchdown receptions ranked second on the team among wide receivers. Williams' second NFL season ended on a very sour note, but it also must be noted that season ended with Williams starting at wide receiver and as San Francisco's primary return specialist with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.