The SFI Top 10

With 10 games remaining in the season, there has been a shakeup in the list of top 49ers since our last breakdown of the team's best players in September. Here is SFI's updated rankings as the 49ers return from their bye week Sunday in Chicago, basing this list on production and performance on and off the field, a player's value to the 49ers and his standing throughout the NFL at his position.

Ranking at beginning of 2006 season in parentheses

1. (4) RB Frank Gore: Just six games into this season, there is little doubt the second-year tailback has established himself as the player most feared by San Francisco opponents because of his production and the things he can do with the football in his hands. Take away his four lost fumbles, and Gore has been one of the best all-around backs in the NFL so far this season. While displaying power to push the pile between the tackles and explosiveness in the open field, Gore has emerged as San Francisco's leader in both rushing and receiving. Gore was the NFL's leading rusher after Week 5 games and currently ranks eighth in the league with 520 yards on 112 carries, averaging 4.6 yards a pop. He also leads the 49ers with 24 receptions for 202 yards and is among the league leaders in total yards from scrimmage.

2. (9) QB Alex Smith: Like Gore, Smith has emerged in his second season as one of the NFL's best young players at his position. Smith's major improvement over his dismal rookie season has given the 49ers a fighting chance and kept them competitive in five of their first six games. The league's youngest starting quarterback at 22, Smith has been steady and consistent and has had only one subpar performance so far this season. He's completing 59.6 percent of his passes for 1,285 yards and eight touchdowns with just four interceptions, and currently ranks sixth in the NFC and 13th among all NFL quarterbacks with a passer rating of 86.4.

3. (1) WR Antonio Bryant: Bryant, who began his first season in San Francisco with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games after being tabbed No. 1 in SFI's preseason Top 10, slips in these rankings only because his production has dropped since opponents realized they had to focus on taking him away from San Francisco game plans by sending constant double-team coverage his way. But that has opened up things for the offense in other areas, and Bryant has continued to play hard and contribute superb down-field blocking despite not getting the football thrown his way nearly as much as he'd like. Bryant remains one of the 49ers most dangerous weapons - and one of the NFL's most dangerous receiving weapons, for that matter - and he leads the team in receiving yardage with 415 on 21 receptions. That places Bryant 30th in the NFC in receptions, and no player with more catches has a better average than Bryant's 19.8 per catch.

4. (2) DE Bryant Young: The four-time All-Pro, still going strong in his 13th NFL season, has established himself as the best thing the 49ers have going on their defensive front seven through the first six games. Despite fighting off constant double teams, Young has 19 tackles - 12 of them solo - and leads the Niners with three sacks and nine quarterback pressures. He has been one of the most consistent players on a defense lacking consistency, and is considered by many as the most indispensable player on that unit.

5. (NR) CB Walt Harris: The 11th-year veteran, in his first season with the 49ers, has arguably been San Francisco's defensive MVP thus far, even though he sat out Week 6 against San Diego with a hamstring injury. Harris ranks among the NFL leaders with three interceptions - all of them coming in Week 5 against Oakland - and he has been a shining star in a secondary that otherwise has played poorly. Harris has played some of the best football of his career since joining the 49ers, and he leads the team in interceptions, passes defensed (5) and forced fumbles (2), is tied for the team lead with one fumble recovery and is sixth on the team with 25 tackles.

6. (NR) WR Arnaz Battle: Questions regarding his health status and whether his troublesome right knee would allow him to be a consistent contributor kept Battle from getting more serious consideration on this list in September, but he has established himself as a decent No. 2 receiver who has been a steady performer throughout the season and a solid complement to No. 1 target Antonio Bryant. Battle ranks second among the team's wideouts with 20 receptions for 233 yards, and he also had the first two-touchdown game of his career in Week 5. Battle had a 60-yard punt return to set up a score in the season opener, and he has averaged 19.5 yards on his five returns.

7. (NR) C Eric Heitmann: The 49ers have been getting strong performance from several of their young offensive linemen, but Heitmann has been the steadiest and most consistent, and he has done a good job making the line calls and holds up well in pass protection. Getting push in the run game is not his strength, but Heitmann has contributed in that area to push the 49ers up to ninth in the NFL rankings in rushing offense. Several San Francisco linemen do certain things better than Heitmann, but he has been the best so far among that group in all-around play.

8. (OTB) OT Jonas Jennings: Jennings almost wasn't considered for this latest list because he missed two of San Francisco's first six games and parts of two others with a various assortment of injuries. But when on the field, he has proven to be an effective performer at left tackle and also a powerful blocker in the run game. The biggest knock on Jennings is that he can't stay healthy, but he returns to the starting lineup this week against the Bears, and when he is right, his play is an integral ingredient in San Francisco's much-improved offense.

9. (OTB) LB Manny Lawson: The rookie has more than held his own at outside linebacker, with the only knock on his game being that he has not provided more heat in the pass rush. Still, his two sacks - which both came in Week 2 against St. Louis, when he was named NFL Rookie of the Week - rank third on the team and his 27 tackles rank fifth. Lawson has performed surprisingly well in coverage, and he has two passes defensed to go along with two quarterback hurries and one tackle for loss. He also has contributed on special teams, where his blocked punt in Week 5 was the play that turned the game in San Francisco's favor in a victory over Oakland.

10. (5) LB Derek Smith: Smith remains in the Top 10 out of respect for his veteran savvy, what he means to the defense and the fact that his 53 tackles are 15 more than any other San Francisco player has recorded through six games. Smith has had a few strong performances - he had 15 tackles in Week 4 against Kansas City - and he's well on course to lead the 49ers in tackles for the sixth consecutive season. Even though his play has been inconsistent thus far and not up to his previous standards, Smith keeps a place on this list based on his production for a defensive unit that isn't producing in several areas.

ON THE BUBBLE: DT Marques Douglas, OT/OG Adam Snyder, OG Justin Smiley, CB Shawntae Spencer, RB/KR Maurice Hicks

NOT CONSIDERED (INJURED): OG Larry Allen, TE Vernon Davis

DROPPED OFF: Allen (3), Spencer (6), Davis (10), K Joe Nedney (7), LB Jeff Ulbrich (8), S Tony Parrish (OTB), TE Eric Johnson (OTB)

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