Throughout the 2011-2012 NFL season, the 49er defense was arguably the best in the league. Carrying an inconsistent offense into the NFC Championship game is not to be taken lightly. As a group, the defense was rock-solid all season. For that, the individual leaders were rewarded on NFL.com’s Top 100 Players of 2012.
Patrick Willis was the highest ranked player for the 49ers. The poll, which takes only NFL players’ votes, indicates which players the rest of the league respect and value. With 97 tackles, four forced fumbles, and one interception in just 13 games, Willis was the anchor of the top defense in the league. Willis came in 10th overall and was the second highest-rated linebacker, losing out on the top spot to the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware. Ware was sixth overall.
At No. 17 was defensive end Justin Smith. The veteran and leader of the defensive line, Smith was the spearhead of an incredible one-two punch that allowed rookie Aldon Smith to wreak havoc in the backfield. Smith finished the season with 7.5 sacks and was a stalwart in breaking down the opposing offensive lines. He was voted the second-best defensive end, behind the Viking’s Jared Allen.
Though the defense often took the spotlight in the Bay Area, that doesn’t mean that the offense didn’t have it’s stars as well. The 49ers’ first offensive player to make the list is Frank Gore. The running back was the workhorse of the 49er offense, accumulating 1,211 yards with 4.3 yards per carry. Gore crossed the plane for eight rushing touchdowns on the year. The yards and touchdowns were the second-highest season totals of his career. Gore was voted as the 28th best player in the league.
Tight end and playoff hero Vernon Davis slotted in at the No. 43 spot. The physical down-field threat didn’t produce the same type of numbers that position-mates Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were able to, but Davis was an integral part of the 49er offense nonetheless. Davis finished the season with 792 yards and six touchdowns. His numbers were down from the two previous years, but his heroics in the playoffs may have sparked his fellow players to remember he is a force to be reckoned with.
Joe Staley and Carlos Rogers were both voted into the 61-70 range, coming in at No. 67 and No. 69, respectively. The offensive tackle helped quarterback Alex Smith get comfortable in the pocket and created vital running lanes for Gore throughout the season. We all know about Smith’s struggles under center, so a solid offensive line was a focus for the team all season.
Rogers made huge improvements this past season, and was recognized for it by his fellow players. The 6’0″ cornerback got six interceptions to go along with 43 tackles. His shutdown defense on the opposing team’s top receivers, allowed the linebackers and safeties much more room to play. With Rogers deep, the 49ers were able to be a bit more aggressive at the line of scrimmage.
The last member of the 49ers to make the list is NaVorro Bowman. Coming in at No. 85, this might be the biggest slight on the list. Bowman picked up 143 tackles on the season and was a monster in the games in which Willis was absent. Willis and Bowman made up the best one-two linebacking punch in the league, but the fact that he played in such a high-powered defense may have hurt his case in the eyes of the league.
Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees took the top spots, with Calvin Johnson coming in third. Check out NFL.com to vote on whether you think the players are overrated or underrated based on their place in the top 100.