Over the span of 25 days, San Francisco 49ers beat writer Chris Biderman of Niners Wire ranked, in his opinion, the team's top 25 players. Any ranking is very subjective and will differ from person-to-person based on their own opinion. Even with our own staff, our ranking of the team's top five players differed following the near unanimous top two spots.
"The rankings are a projection for the coming season," Biderman told 49erswebzone.com. Obviously past performance is going to influence the ranking, but it is mainly based on who he believes are the team's top players going into the 2016 season and how well he believes they will contribute.
The opinion of someone like Biderman is important because, unlike most fans, he observes and follows the team on a daily basis. He watches them practice and is there when they speak to the media. For example, many might not place defensive back Jimmie Ward within their top five. Biderman had him at number four. When compiling my own top five list, it was those number four and five spots that were the most difficult to assign. The word "potential" can be both good and bad when describing an NFL player. It can convey a player's physical and mental attributes and the potential for that player to do great things. However, it also means that the player is not yet a proven commodity and there is the possibility that the "potential" may never be reached.
Within my own ranking, I went with two somewhat more proven commodities at number four and five with FS Eric Reid and WR Torrey Smith rather than potential of a player like Jimmie Ward, who has reportedly shown well during offseason practices. This just goes to show you how difficult it can be to rank players on a roster – and I just had to do the top five. Biderman went many steps further in his ranking.
There is nothing wrong with ranking a player higher based on potential since you are looking forward to 2016 and not exclusively looking at past seasons, but it can still be a difficult task. How do you rank men that have never played an NFL snap? How do you rank guys coming off of injury or further recovering from an injury? It all gets very subjective.
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We were curious who Biderman had the most difficultly ranking within his top 25 list. He spoke with 49erswebzone.com about the tough choices that he had to make and the players that he found particularly difficult to place. "The rookies DeForest Buckner and Joshua Garnett were difficult to place," Biderman told us.
"While Buckner looks impressive without pads, it's tough to say how well he'd assimilate to the pro game during his first season," explains Biderman. "After all, Arik Armstead played only a third of the snaps as a rookie. It's likely Buckner has a similar role, making him tough to place. At [his ranking of] 15, I think he'll play a little bit more than Armstead did, but it's dependent on how well he can stop the run. The 49ers allowed two yards more against the run on average with their sub packages last year, which is where Buckner is likely to play. But in his role, Buckner could make an immediate impact as a pass rusher, which is ultimately why we pegged him at 15."
"Garnett is someone I think will start right away and become one of the league's better young guards from the jump, explaining his spot at 12," said Biderman of the 49ers' other first-round draft selection. "He's simply too smart, physical and tenacious not to provide a significant upgrade over the team's right guard situation from last season. The 49ers are going to want to run the ball a lot, meaning Garnett will be a key figure on offense."
Garnett was considered by many to be the draft's best run blocking guard, which contributed to the 49ers' decision to move back into the end of the first round to select him with the 28th overall pick. It was interesting that advanced statistics site Pro Football Focus projected Brandon Thomas as the starter at right guard. I tend to agree with Biderman that the 49ers moved up to draft Garnett with the intention of making him a starter. The "potential" is just too high for the 2015 John Outland Trophy winner – an award given to the most outstanding interior lineman of the year.
Then there were players that missed the beat writer's ranking completely. "There were a couple players that I wanted to include in the top-25 that didn't make it," Biderman told us. "I think there's a good chance fourth-round pick Rashard Robinson ends up starting games or, at least, winning the third corner spot to come on the field in sub packages. He might be the most talented corner on the roster and an early-round talent that fell in the draft because of his off-the-field issues."
Another highly regarded rookie that fell in the draft, this time because of injury, was CB Will Redmond, who likely didn't come close to touching Biderman's top 25 list. He is recovering from an ACL tear suffered during a Mississippi State practice on October 22. "I expect to play in 2016," Redmond told reporters following his selection. "Will Redmond saw his final season torpedoed by injury after seven games when he tore his ACL. By that point he had allowed just one touchdown and a passer rating of only 41.0 when targeted by opposing quarterbacks," said Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus.
I asked Biderman how much Redmond has been participating in the team's offseason program. "Redmond dressed, participated in team stretching, but spent the rest of his practices on the side field doing rehab and conditioning work," he answered. "He seems to be moving well. But it's hard to imagine a scenario where he's healthy and competing for playing time at the start of training camp, as Baalke predicted."
Biderman went on to discuss the team's wide receivers in relation to his ranking. "Another rookie that could crack this list is receiver Aaron Burbridge. There's nothing stopping him from getting playing time opposite Torrey Smith," he said. "He's a player I expect to stand out once pads come on given his track record of making tough catches at Michigan State. He's similar to Anquan Boldin that way. He's far from a combine star, but he's someone you want on your side to make a play when you need it."
Biderman felt that his ranking of K Phil Dawson at number 18 may have "ruffled some feathers" among fans. Personally, I don't have a problem with him being that high and could even see him being a bit higher. Whether that is a testament to just how good he has been for the 49ers over the years, the apparent lack of great talent on the roster right now, or a combination of both, it is tough to argue that he should have been lower within the ranking.
"He's just really good at his job," said Biderman of Dawson. "You could make a case that he's one of San Francisco's best players when it comes to getting his job done."
Biderman mentioned one more player who missed his ranking, but could still produce for the 49ers this season. "[Tight end] Vance McDonald is someone that could fly up this list if he improves his hands," said Biderman. "Physically, it's all there. He's fast, a good blocker and could become a viable weapon in Chip Kelly's offense. But he has to get over whatever mental he has about catching the ball. If he does, he could find himself among the team's top 25."
You can view Biderman's complete top 25 list here or by visiting USA TODAY Sports' Niners Wire.