The SFI Top 10
Previous rankings from 2006 midseason in parentheses 1. (1) RB Frank Gore: Not only did Gore situate himself as the 49ers' best player in only his second NFL season, but he also established himself as one of the NFL's rising stars after capturing a NFC rushing title with 1,695 yards. Gore entered his breakout 2006 season after having separate surgeries to repair torn labrums on each of his shoulders, but as he prepares for his starting berth in the Pro Bowl this week, he's as healthy as he ever has been during his football career since his early days in college. Gore says he's eyeing Eric Dickerson's NFL single-season record of 2,105 rushing yards, and while that's a lofty goal, it must be noted that Gore gained more than 1,000 yards during the second half of the season, a surge that makes a record run seem possible as Gore enters the prime of his career. 2. (NC-I) OG Larry Allen: Allen entered the 2006 season No. 3 on this list, but he was not considered because of injury in the November rankings due to a sprained knee that had kept him out for all but a few plays of the 49ers' first six games. But when he returned, Allen was his old self, dominating defenders as one of the NFL's best run-blockers. Though he doesn't play at that level as a pass-blocker, Allen was a force throughout San Francisco's final 10 games, and it showed in a San Francisco rushing attack that finished ranked sixth in the NFL. Allen was named to the Pro Bowl for the 11th time in his 13 NFL seasons, and though he'll enter his 14th season at age 35 and obviously is on the tail end of his career, he still appears to have at least one season of top-shelf quality left in him, and perhaps even more. 3. (5) CB Walt Harris: Like Allen, Harris is another 2006 newcomer who exploded onto the scene in San Francisco and had a big impact on the 49ers. Contrary to Allen, Harris ascended to a higher level and had unquestionably the best season of his 11-year NFL career. He tied for the NFC lead with a career-high eight interceptions, and also led the 49ers in passes defensed (17), forced fumbles (5) and fumble recoveries (2) in what statistically was one of the best seasons ever by a 49ers' cornerback. Harris also was solid in coverage throughout the year and helped add some stability to a San Francisco secondary that had been seriously lacking that quality for several seasons. Like Gore and Allen, Harris will be representing the 49ers in Saturday's Pro Bowl at Hawaii. 4. (NR) LB Brandon Moore: Moore makes the biggest jump in these rankings, which were last compiled at midseason last year - just when Moore was breaking into the starting lineup to stay. Moore wasn't even on the bubble back then, but that primarily was because he still was a situational player at the time. But beginning with his breakout game against Minnesota in Week 9 - after which he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week - Moore steamrolled to the finish of the season with a magnificent second half that included several standout performances. In the process, Moore - even though he started just 11 games - ended Derek Smith's string of five seasons as San Francisco's leading tackler with 114 stops. He also led the team with six sacks and forced three fumbles. As he enters the prime of his career, the five-year veteran will be a key cog in the middle of San Francisco's defense as the 49ers continue to build that unit. 5. (7) C Eric Heitmann: A broken tibia is a serious injury, but Heitmann's was a clean break and all indications are that he'll be able to return at full strength by the end of the spring. Heitmann at full strength was arguably San Francisco's most consistent offensive lineman overall in 2006, and his steady play in the middle and ability to make line calls was a key to the 49ers' improvement on offense during the season. Heitmann's ability to take control of the center position has allowed the 49ers to move forward at the position without two-time Pro Bowler Jeremy Newberry, who won't be offered a contract this year to return to the team after spending last season on injured reserve. 6. (4) DE Bryant Young: The old warhorse - the last remaining link to San Francisco's last Super Bowl champion - had another fine season in the defensive trenches in 2006 and appears inclined to return in 2007 for a 14th season at age 34. Though he is on the downside of a career that has seen him named All-Pro four times, Young still played at a high enough level last season to be named a Pro Bowl alternate, and he still can be an impact force that requires double-team attention from opponents at times. He heads into 2007 still as the best thing the 49ers have going for them on their defensive line. 7. (2) QB Alex Smith: Smith could be as high as No. 2 on this list on potential alone, but he slips down to this spot after his inconsistent play over the last half of the 2006 season. But the sky seems to be the limit for Smith, who showed tremendous flashes of ability while making huge strides over his dismal rookie season. Smith could be a real NFL up-and-comer in 2007, and the progress he displays during his third season in the league will tell a lot about where his career is headed. 8. (6) WR Arnaz Battle: There are some who continue to say Battle would be no better than a No. 3 receiver on many NFL teams, but one of those teams certainly isn't the 49ers. With Antonio Bryant - who began the 2006 season No. 1 on this list - letting down the team on several occasions, Battle emerged as a tough, consistent receiving threat who could be counted on to make the tough grab in traffic and get open underneath. He also finished as the 49ers' leading receiver among wideouts with career-high totals of 59 receptions for 686 yards and three touchdowns. 9. (NC-I) TE Vernon Davis: Davis still was on the sidelines with a broken right tibia when SFI released its midseason top 10, so he was not considered for those rankings. But after returning to the starting lineup in Week 12 against St. Louis, Davis gave several glimpses of the physical talent that could quickly make him an elite performer and impact playmaker at the tight end position. Davis also excelled as a blocker and, once he smooths out the rough edges, he has an all-around game that quickly could make him one of the 49ers' top players during the 2007 season. 10. (OTB) OG Justin Smiley: Smiley made big strides during his third NFL season and asserted himself as one of the rising young guards in the league. His improved strength and power in 2006 allowed him to match up much better in pass blocking and deliver blows on the move in the open field. Smiley's aggressive style and ability to get out on the edge as a pulling guard contributed significantly to San Francisco's rushing success last season, and he's a maturing player who came into his own while giving several indications that his best still is ahead. ON THE BUBBLE: LB Manny Lawson, WR Antonio Bryant, DE Marques Douglas, LB Derek Smith, S Keith Lewis DROPPED OFF: Bryant (3), Lawson (9), D. Smith (10), OT Jonas Jennings (8), OT/OG Adam Snyder (OTB), CB Shawntae Spencer (OTB), RB/KR Maurice Hicks (OTB) NOTE: NC-I is not considered (injured)
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