SFI's top 10 list
1. JULIAN PETERSON: It's a pity the All-Pro linebacker, who said back in December it was an "honor" and a "blessing" to be mentioned as the team's franchise player, missed so much time with the 49ers this spring due to contract issues. But he's still the No. 1 talent on the team, and one of the elite defenders in the league, and he is on the verge of superstardom in 2004. He'll need to make it to at least part of training camp to realize that potential from the start this season, but he's a special player and true leader who displayed his commitment to both the Niners and winning during his fabulous 2003 season. 2. JEREMY NEWBERRY: The severe ankle injury that bogged him down last year now is a thing of the past, and offseason rest allowed other nagging injuries more time to heal. Newberry says he's the healthiest he has been in the past three years, and that's likely to lead to supreme performance by the two-time Pro Bowl star, who is the heart and soul of the Niners' offensive line and played well last year despite his injury. Newberry has the brute force to dominate in the trenches, the smarts to make line calls at the line of scrimmage, and the character to lead by example between the white lines and also outside them. 3. KEVAN BARLOW: Many may feel this is too high for Barlow on our debut list, but we are putting him here because of the position he plays, the huge role he figures to have this season in San Francisco's hopes for offensive success, and the growth he has shown us both on and off the field during the spring. Plus, if his four games as the starter at the end of last season are any indication, he's already on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite backs. His combination of size and skill will be a load for each and every San Francisco opponent this season. 4. TONY PARRISH: This stud has to be one of the most underrated players in the league. How else to explain his omission from the Pro Bowl last year, when he gained second-team All-Pro honors? But the 49ers know what he can do, and so do we. A versatile, instinctive safety who can lay the hammer and also make plays on the football, Parrish is comfortable at either safety position and is primed for big things - again - in 2004. 5. FRED BEASLEY: The role of a true fullback is being diminished throughout the NFL, but Beasley is so good and makes such an impact that the Niners are forced to find more ways to get him on the field, even though their offense is moving toward more spread formations and one-back sets. Beasley, however, is a true bulldozer, and the Niners will take full advantage of his blocking and pass-catching skills this season. A Pro Bowler for the first time last year, Beasley also was second-team All-Pro and gets a lot of votes around the league for being the NFL's No. 1 fullback. 6. ANDRE CARTER: After his outstanding sophomore season, some thought Carter's performance fell off last year when his sack production fell to 6.5. But, entering his fourth season, he is a true terror and big play waiting to happen who is intent on making a big impact in San Francisco's new defensive schemes. He continues to work hard on improving his strength and skills and should be more difficult for opposing offenses to contain as the Niners put him in positions to create havoc. 7. JAMIE WINBORN: Dennis Erickson said there were times last year when Winborn might have been San Francisco's best player on the field. Remarkably recovered from a serious neck injury, Winborn looked like his old self this spring, and the time off to recover from surgery appears to have made him as fresh and fast as ever. He is a disruptive force who is developing discipline in his game and could see it all come together for him in 2004. 8. SCOTT GRAGG: In his 10th NFL season, and fifth with the Niners, you should see Gragg move into a more visible role this year as one of the team's premier players. Ask coaches and teammates, and they will tell you he already has been one of those in recent seasons. Guys such as Newberry, Ron Stone and Derrick Deese have previously received more attention along the offensive line, but Gragg is as big and steady as they come and also has emerged as a force in the locker room. 9. DEREK SMITH: Set a team record for tackles last year, but also displayed some play-making abilities while blitzing and in pass coverage. The 3-4 variations the Niners are adding to their defensive scheme could allow him to move around more and make him even more effective. Smith has spent a lot of time at Peterson's left outside linebacker position during the spring, and we don't feel that's a place where he'd be most effective. But he didn't seem confused by the switch, which is a testament to his intelligence and versatility. 10. AHMED PLUMMER: Now that he has contract security in San Francisco, we expect Plummer to be better than his uneven 2003 season. He's already pretty good, and he possesses the talent to be a lockdown-type corner in San Francisco's scheme. His commitment is unquestioned, and the size he has added during the past 18 months and the work he puts in could push him into the upper level of NFL cornerbacks this season. ON THE BUBBLE: Bryant Young, Brandon Lloyd, Tim Rattay, Eric Johnson, Kwame Harris.
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