The offseason always brings about interesting conversation. This week we are going to look at the San Francisco 49ers’ roster and see if there are any future Hall of Fame players on this team.
There are definitely a few that come to mind right away. Any future Hall of Fame projections will obviously be barring injury. This team is stacked with talent and should be good for years to come.
The most glaring player that is destined to be put in the Hall of Fame is Patrick Willis. The statistics don’t really tell the story for Willis. He does however, have some pretty impressive stats. Over his six year career, he has accumulated 812 tackles. More importantly, he has been an All-Pro every year that he has been in the NFL. In 2007 Willis won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He is also an annual candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
His former coach, Mike Singletary, is one of the best middle linebackers ever, and had this to say about Willis: “I’ve coached two of the greatest linebackers — one that has already proven to be one of the greatest and one who will prove to be.”
The other linebacker that he was referring to was Ray Lewis.
Few linebackers possess the ability to cover the field from sideline to sideline. Willis has the ability to match up with running backs out of the backfield and against tight ends. He is truly one of the most complete players in the NFL and is destined for a place in the Hall of Fame. Many recognize him as one of the best two or three middle linebackers in the NFL over his six year career.
Another linebacker that some fans may mention along with Willis is NaVorro Bowman. He actually possesses the same ability to cover the whole field from sideline to sideline and he actually is the linebacker that stays in the game in dime packages. This was the case in the 2012 season opener against the Green Bay Packers. Bowman was able to bait Aaron Rodgers into making a throw to Greg Jennings late in the game. He made a great play on the ball by jumping and showing his above average catching when he made the game sealing interception.
It is still a bit early to book a trip to Canton for Bowman, but he has already been named a first team All-Pro after both of his first two seasons as a starter. The stats will once again not tell the true story for Bowman. He does rack up a high amount of tackles and he has a good amount of passes defensed under his belt.
Bowman’s play in the 2012 NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons was one of the better plays that you will see a middle linebacker make. Roddy White, one of the best receivers in the game was Bowman’s assignment on 4th & 4 on the 49ers’ 10-yard line. The score was 28-24 and the Falcons were poised to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Bowman would not allow White to get separation on the crossing pattern that he ran. There was a little contact at the top of the route but that is allowable within five yards from the line of scrimmage. Bowman stayed in Roddy’s hip pocket and batted the ball down to give the 49ers the ball back with 1:09 left on the clock. It was a great play by a great player that could take his place alongside of Willis as a Hall of Fame linebacker.
Looking at the rest of the 49ers’ roster, two more names come to mind to be enshrined in eternal glory. These players also work hand in hand similar to how Willis and Bowman do: Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
Ironically, they are coming into their own at different ends of the spectrum as far as their careers are concerned. Justin Smith is having his best years towards the end of his career, while Aldon Smith came into the NFL on fire.
Once again, the issue with stats arise when considering Justin Smith. I personally think he will not make it into the Hall of Fame, but he is definitely worthy of consideration. The defensive tackle position is one that is very hard to make it into Canton. Some 49ers fans will be outraged because I didn’t select him as a player that makes it in, however there are some other players to consider that have not made it in either.
To date, Bryant Young is not in the Hall of Fame. I made the Justin Smith and Bryant Young comparison in an article a few weeks ago. Justin Smith is one of the better players over the last two years but unfortunately, his emergence is too late in his career.
Few are able to stand their ground at the point of attack like him. He isn’t a high sack guy but he does get pressure on the quarterback often. The most overlooked part of his game is his high motor. This was on display in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011. Michael Vick threw a wide receiver screen pass to Jeremy Maclin outside the numbers. Maclin was able to turn it into a 17-yard gain.
Justin Smith was lined up right on top of the hash mark and got pressure on Vick before he threw the ball. He didn’t quit on the play and tracked down Maclin, a very fast receiver 17 yards down the field and force a fumble that was recovered by Dashon Goldson. The Eagles would have had the ball on the 49ers’ 31-yard line and in position to kick the go-ahead field goal as the score was 24-23. That game served to be a catalyst for the surprisingly successful 2011 season.
Aldon Smith is very likely to make it to the Hall of Fame if he keeps playing at this pace. One thing to note is that towards the end of the 2013 season, Justin Smith was injured in a game against the New England Patriots. The sack totals slowed down after that. Aldon Smith also suffered a shoulder injury which didn’t help.
Prior to that injury, Aldon Smith was on pace to lead the NFL in sacks and break Michael Strahan’s record for most sacks in a season. Many fans don’t realize that Aldon still got a lot of pressure on the quarterback. He was in Tom Brady’s face a lot in the Patriots game. He also tormented Matt Ryan in the NFC Championship against the Falcons.
Aldon Smith is a case where the stats will help him if he keeps up the pace that he has started with. To date, he has 33.5 sacks. No player in the history of the NFL has accumulated more sacks over the first two years. His pass rushing arsenal is full of moves. He has the speed to run right by tackles yet has the ability to bull rush them right back into the quarterback’s lap. Jason Campbell is still having nightmares about Aldon after his five sack dominance of Gabe Carimi and J’Marcus Webb, the Chicago Bears tackles at the time.
Another thing that many don’t realize is how quick his hands are. He seems to always get his hands on offensive tackles first. This is because his hands are quicker and knock down the tackles’ hands before they get to his chest plate. His condor-like wingspan of almost six feet helps ward off blockers as well.
One thing that we need to be aware of is fast starts by other pass rushers such as Jevon Kearse. He was slowed by injury after having a dominant start to his career. Hopefully injuries won’t be a problem with Aldon Smith. We still have to consider how hard it is to make it into the Hall of Fame, though. Think of how two former 49ers, Charles Haley (5-time Super Bowl champion and 100.5 career sacks) and Kevin Greene (160 sacks) have not been selected to the Hall yet.
This roster is stacked with players that are very good. When it comes to Hall of Fame mention, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are the most likely to gain strong consideration.
At the end of the day, I feel that there are three future Hall of Famers on this roster: Willis, Bowman and Aldon Smith.
They are at the top of their game and still have plenty of time left in their career. San Francisco is fortunate to be in a position to have these players around for the long term.