The 49ers had 24 newcomers on their roster this season, and to say they made a difference in the team's 2011 turnaround would be an understatement. Some made more of a difference than others. The Niners wouldn't have won 14 games and made it to the NFC Championship Game without them, and here are the top five newcomers who contributed the most to San Francisco's newfound success.
1. K David Akers
The 49ers had a good kicker in Joe Nedney
the past six seasons before Akers arrived on the scene this past summer. Now they have a great one. And Akers showed what greatness is on a regular basis during his terrific 2011 season, arguably the best ever for a kicker in NFL history. He also displayed what that greatness could mean for a team in the fine-line NFL, where the difference between winning and losing often can come down to the end of someone's kicking toe. In Akers, the 49ers could be confident they had one of the best and most reliable toes in the business. And they relied on him often – Akers attempted 52 field goals this season, the most in NFL history. He made 44 of them – also a new league record – and his NFL-high 166 points were the most ever in a season by a kicker. Akers ranked fourth in the NFL with 47 touchbacks, and the 13th-year veteran also became a leader that players looked up to in the San Francisco locker room. Akers was the first 49ers kicker to be named first-team All-Pro in 22 years and the first in 48 years to be named the NFC's kicker in the Pro Bowl. Yeah, you could say this newcomer made a difference.
2. CB Carlos Rogers
The 49ers have been looking for a legitimate No. 1 cover cornerback since… well… you may have to go back to the days when Eric Davis and Deion Sanders were patrolling the edges in the San Francisco secondary during the mid 1990s. The Niners thought they were buying a legitimate No. 1 CB back in 2007 when they made free agent Nate Clements
the highest-paid defender in NFL history with an eight-year, $80 million deal. But as it turned out, Clements often struggled in coverage, and he only made it through half that deal before the 49ers finally cut their losses. To replace Clements, the Niners got lucky to find Rogers still unsigned a week into free agency after the lockout was lifted in late July. They snapped him up with a one-year deal for $4.25 million, which proved to be one of the bargains of the century for San Francisco. Rogers stepped in on the left side and immediately established himself as the team's No. 1 cornerback, and his strength was coverage – just what the Niners needed on the edge with two imposing, hard-hitting safeties in the middle. Rogers was both excellent and consistent throughout the season, leading the 49ers with 18 passes defensed and tying for fourth in the NFL with six interceptions – the most by a San Francisco cornerback since Walt Harris had eight in 2006. Rogers also became the first San Francisco cornerback to be named a NFC starter in the Pro Bowl since … well… Eric Davis in 1996.
3. SS Donte Whitner
The Niners knew they were getting a hard-hitting veteran with attitude for the back end of their defense with the addition of Whitner, who led all NFL defensive backs with 140 tackles during the 2010 season with the Buffalo Bills. But they also got a guy who took charge as a leader and became a powerful influence in holding together a secondary that featured three new starters over the previous season. Whitner was the consummate strong safety in San Francisco's defensive scheme, a presence edging toward the line of scrimmage to help in stopping the run game but also staying true to his coverage responsibilities on the back end. Whitner finished fifth on the team with 91 tackles – leading all San Francisco defensive backs – and he also led the team with three fumble recoveries while collecting two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. Whitner set the tone for an aggressive secondary with his fearless style, and nobody will forget his crushing hit near the goal line that knocked out New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas
in the first quarter of San Francisco's playoff win over the Saints. Whitner was everything the 49ers expected and needed him to be from the moment he signed a three-year, $11.75 million deal with the team on Aug. 6, which also proved to be money very well spent by the Niners.
4. C Jonathan Goodwin
The Niners needed immediate help at center for their young, still-developing offensive line after the New York Giants
overspent on Davis Baas to lure away San Francisco's 2010 starter in free agency. The Niners temporarily worked guard/tackle Adam Snyder
at center before they were able to sign Goodwin to a three year, $10.9 million deal on Aug. 3. Goodwin eventually took over as the starter from Snyder, and that proved to be a boon for the entire line as Snyder was available early in the season to take over as the starting right guard from a struggling Chilo Rachal
, completing a starting unit that would stay together and grow together to the end of the season. Goodwin – who won a Super Bowl ring and went to the Pro Bowl with New Orleans in 2009 – brought the veteran presence and leadership the Niners needed along a young line that was bordering on chaos during the first month of the season. But Goodwin helped hold things together and was instrumental in the unit's growth thereafter, and his experience in making the line calls for the rest of the unit was invaluable to the entire offense. Goodwin also anchored the middle of the unit with consistently strong play on his way to being named a NFC Pro Bowl alternate.
5. OLB Aldon Smith
For sheer impact, San Francisco's first-round draft pick was as noticeable as any of the team's 24 newcomers this season. That's the nature of the role Smith played on the team, a role that eventually featured him as one of San Francisco's top edge pass rushers of the past two decades. The second-youngest player on the team – and a surprise pick to many when the Niners grabbed him with the No. 7 overall selection in the 2011 draft – Smith displayed steady development as a pass-rushing force and by the end of the season had become an integral factor in San Francisco's defensive scheme and the team's dominance on that side of the ball. Even though he played primarily on passing downs, Smith became a full-time concern for opponents as he finished as the Niners' runaway leader with 14 sacks, just half a sack short of the NFL record for a rookie. In the process, Smith became the first San Francisco player to produce double-digit sacks in nine seasons, and he had the most sacks by a 49er since Dana Stubblefield and Chris Doleman each had 15 in back-to-back seasons in 1997-1998. Smith finished among the NFL leaders in sacks produced per play, and he had 44 tackles while finishing third on the team with 36 quarterback hits and fourth with 45 quarterback pressures. Along the way, Smith established himself as one of the NFL's premier rookies of 2011, and he's a top candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors that will be announced next week, his arrest Friday on DUI charges in Miami notwithstanding.