The SFI Top 10

Who are the top 49ers entering the 2006 season? Here is how SFI ranks them heading into Sunday's opener against the Arizona Cardinals, basing this list on production and performance on and off the field, a player's value to the 49ers and his standing throughout the league at his position.

Rankings at end of 2005 season in parentheses

1. (NR) WR Antonio Bryant: In his short time with the team since being signed as a free agent in March, Bryant has established himself as one of San Francisco's most competitive players and top offensive threats. The team's star of training camp has the speed, size and skill to get open on a consistent basis and already has emerged as quarterback Alex Smith's No. 1 target in the passing game. If San Francisco's revamped offense is to get untracked after finishing dead last in the NFL rankings last year, Bryant and his growing talent will be at the forefront.

2. (2) DL Bryant Young: The 34-year-old warhorse, entering his 13th NFL season, was kept under wraps most of the preseason to conserve him for the regular season. For years, skeptics have been expecting the four-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler to slip because of age and wear and tear, but Young was in top form when healthy last year, recording eight sacks in San Francisco's first seven games before a knee injury hampered him in November. He has looked robust as ever this summer, and the 49ers certainly will be counting on another season of top performance as Young anchors a shaky defensive line.

3. (NR) OG Larry Allen: The Dallas Cowboys allowed this future Hall of Famer to walk away after 10 Pro Bowl seasons? Their bad. In his 13th NFL season, Allen has been a key addition not only to San Francisco's promising offensive line, but to the offense and team in general. He still clears out space with the best of them in the running game, and if he holds up in pass blocking, the left side of the Niners' line will be well fortified. Allen made the Pro Bowl last year - the only player on San Francisco's 2006 roster to play in the NFL's all-star game after last season - and he enters this season playing at that same level with his new team.

4. (8) RB Frank Gore: An all-around back who can run with power between the tackles and explosive burst in the open field, Gore will get an opportunity to carry a rushing game that's expected to carry San Francisco's emerging offense. The first rookie to lead the 49ers in rushing in 15 seasons when he gained 608 yards despite starting just one game last year, Gore quickly convinced the 49ers this summer that they didn't need Kevan Barlow any longer. Then he went out and averaged 5.4 yards a carry as the team's front-line back, showing nothing but great promise and potential in the process.

5. (4) LB Derek Smith: The 10th-year veteran never has been much of a preseason performer, saving his best stuff for when the real games begin in September. Smith is now one of the team's undisputed leaders on defense and his play in the middle will be key to the team's multiple schemes as the 49ers attempt to find what works best between their 3-4 and 4-3 alignments. The team's defensive MVP in 2005, Smith had one of his best seasons and played at a Pro Bowl level last year with 163 tackles, leading San Francisco in that department for the fifth consecutive seasons since he joined the team in 2001.

6. (6) CB Shawntae Spencer: In his second NFL season last year, Spencer emerged as the top talent in the San Francisco secondary who has the potential to become one of the league's better young cover cornerbacks. Spencer tied for the team lead with four interceptions last year, returning one of them 61 yards for a touchdown, and also led the team with 14 passes defensed while finishing fourth with 76 tackles. With more help around him in 2006, he could be headed toward a breakout season.

7. (5) K Joe Nedney: The team's offensive MVP in 2005, Nedney had his best season as a pro, connecting on 26 of 28 field goals, including all 10 from between 40-49 yards. While leading the 49ers in scoring with 97 points, Nedney also showed a big leg on kickoffs and the ability to hit the long field goal, making good on kicks from 52 and 56 yards, the latter tying a team record. If the 49ers' offense spends more time in enemy territory this year as expected, Nedney could get an opportunity to gain recognition among the league's top kickers.

8. (OTB) LB Jeff Ulbrich: Ulbrich has emerged as one of San Francisco's top defenders and has developed into an all-around linebacker who has improved his skills in pass coverage. He's a beast against the run and was among the NFL leaders in tackles last year before suffering a season-ending biceps injury in early October. He had a career-high 167 tackles in 2004 and looks to pick up where he left off last season.

9. (NR) QB Alex Smith: Smith was nowhere to be seen on these rankings during his dismal rookie season last year, but he moves into this spot after showing considerable improvement over last season this summer and displaying and ability to make plays and fulfill some of the promise that made him the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 draft. With better offensive weapons around him, he could surprise some people and become a productive QB in his second NFL season. To be sure, the 49ers are counting on him more than just about any other player on their roster.

10. (NR) TE Vernon Davis: A rookie who has yet to play one regular-season NFL snap usually wouldn't be considered in these rankings, but Davis certainly looked like the real deal while showing steady development this summer, and he has legitimate potential to make noise in the NFL's Rookie of the Year sweepstakes. He might be as talented as any player on the team, and that pushes him up this list ahead of some more-accomplished veterans to begin the regular season.

ON THE BUBBLE: OT Jonas Jennings (NC-I), S Tony Parrish (NC-I), TE Eric Johnson (NC-I), LB Manny Lawson (NR), OG Justin Smiley (NR)


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