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Who Makes the Cut for a 49ers Dream Team? First-Team Defense Edition

Jul 26, 2022 at 2:31 PM--

With so much talent and success over the years, the 49ers claim a celebrated history unrivaled by most franchises. This set of articles seeks to unearth the best of the best in this storied history.

In our first installment, we explored what a first-team offense might look like if we could populate it with the greatest players from the past. In this installment, we'll explore the best defensive players who have pounded the gridiron for the 49ers to see who will earn the title of "all-time" best player at every position, earning a spot on our 49ers Dream Team.

Just to refresh our memories, let's review the criteria I used to choose these players:

1. I chose mostly players I know well. My experience dates to the beginning of the Montana era. I remember those glory years and am biased a bit by what I saw during that dynastic run and beyond. Some of my picks reflect that bias.

2. I tried to choose players from the past whose careers have since ended. I did this so that current players have an opportunity to prove themselves. No need to hastily harvest the greatest ever from a green crop.

3. I only chose two teams rather than filling out an entire 53-man roster. It's simpler and tidier this way.

4. I held a bias for players who either began their careers with the 49ers or spent close to half of their careers with the organization.

5. Hall of Fame players received precedence.

Note: Just one more quick comment before we dive in. Choosing defensive players for a team has the added wrinkle of trying to fit them into a certain defensive scheme, and there are a lot of them! I landed on a 4-3 defensive scheme but even then still ran into problems.

Many defensive positions are fluid, and this made my life miserable. For example, in the 80s iteration of the 49ers' defensive scheme, Charles Haley would have been classified as an outside linebacker. In a 4-3 defense, he would find himself a defensive end. I handed him the defensive end moniker because that's where he fits naturally in the scheme, even though it wasn't his native position with San Francisco.

At the end of the process, I decided that I needed to simply showcase as much diverse talent as I could.

As a result, there is quite a bit of wiggle room with these selections. I did it that way by design to try and get the best cross-section of players I could. If you have any suggestions or upgrades, leave them in the comments section.

And now, the secondary:

First-Team Secondary

Ronnie Lott (Free Safety) - Again we consider a player whose athletic prowess led to great game-time productivity. However, Lott's total output isn't measurable with numbers only. He made himself the sole leader of a great 49ers defense. During those glory years, 49ers defenses benefitted immeasurably from Lott's leadership.

And, boy, could he hit. Scouring the internet will turn up clip after clip of Lott laying out opposing players. His play inspired his teammates and made the defense, not to mention the whole team, better. Handing Lott the all-time greatest safety is a simple task. A riskier but valid argument could be made that he owns the mantle of all-time greatest defensive leader.

Of course, his statistics prove his value. He played to the tune of 721 tackles and 51 interceptions with five defensive touchdowns in ten seasons with San Francisco. That's a career that deserves all-time status!

Tim McDonald (Strong Safety) - McDonald split his career almost evenly between the Cardinals and 49ers. If we were to consider either half of his team-accumulated stats individually, McDonald would rank well on the merit of either end of his career. Put those numbers together, and you have a strong argument for a trip to Canton.

However, we're only concerned with McDonald's performance in red and gold, and what a performance it was! With 545 tackles, 40 interceptions and four defensive touchdowns in seven seasons with the 49ers, he certainly deserves this spot on the all-time squad.

Eric Wright (Cornerback 1) – Many great cornerbacks have roamed the 49ers' secondary over the years, making this one of the most difficult positions to fill. Jimmy Johnson, Kermit Alexander, Don Griffin and many others have lurked in the shadows, waiting to hawk a pass thrown their way.

At the end of the process, I chose Wright as my first selection, and for good reason. He anchored many great secondaries for the 49ers and held that position through the glorious decade of the 80s for them.

His statistics are, indeed, impressive. He snagged 18 interceptions during his career, returning two for touchdowns, both during the 1983 season. He also added five fumble recoveries, all while playing his entire career with the Niners.

Those numbers may never get him into the Hall of Fame, but that isn't the point in this instance. Wright's greatest asset was how well he communicated with the rest of the secondary, particularly Ronnie Lott. Defenses feared that combination of great players. Without Wright, things may have gone in a whole different direction during that dynastic run.

Jimmy Johnson (Cornerback 2) – No, it's not THAT Jimmy Johnson. This James Earl Johnson spent his entire career, all sixteen seasons, with the 49ers, anchoring their secondary. He never made it to the Super Bowl, but he can boast a Hall of Fame pedigree and a spot on the Hall of Fame "All-70s Team."

His stats pop right off the sheet as well. He snagged 47 interceptions, good for second place on the 49ers' all-time list, right behind some guy named Ronnie Lott. He also scored two defensive touchdowns and collected 7 fumbles during his illustrious career. This plants him firmly in the bevy of greatest 49ers players of all time.

Justin Smith (Defensive End) – Ah, yes. For those who had the incredible privilege of watching "The Cowboy" play, we salute you! He was a monster of a lineman. Although he began his career with the Bengals, he will forever find favor with 49ers fans for one important reason—his motor never stopped. From kickoff to final whistle the man made the energizer bunny look like Rip Van Winkle.

His strip from behind (Yup! I said from behind!) of Philadelphia wide receiver Jeremy Maclin defined one of the stingiest 49ers defenses of all time. That incredible forced fumble in the waning moments of the game prevented the Eagles from scoring and taking the lead. It also defined who Smith was, a player who wouldn't accept defeat before he fell exhausted to the turf. His play inspired the rest of the defense to play that much harder with spectacular results during his tenure.

How Smith had enough energy to chase down a wide receiver like that so late in the contest still baffles many. But that was just how Justin Smith played. That's why he made this list.

His 43.5 sacks, 414 total tackles and five Pro Bowls for San Francisco don't hurt either. That's quite a career from "The Cowboy."

Charles Haley (Defensive End/Edge) – Haley defined the position of dedicated edge rusher, not just for the 49ers, but for the whole league. Before Haley, there really wasn't any such position as a pass rushing specialist. After Haley, everyone wanted one!

Granted, that idea spawned from the keen football intellect of Bill Walsh and his cronies. What can't be denied is that Haley claimed the roll and defined it better than anyone else. His talent and effort made the rest of the defense elite during the latter half of the 80s.

At the end of his stint with the 49ers, he dropped the quarterback 66.5 times and recorded 331 tackles. His production, talent and ground-breaking play landed him in the Hall of Fame and on this list.

Bryant Young (Defensive Tackle) – Young stands as yet another Hall of Fame inductee to make this Dream Team. He's a harder player to classify because he played both defensive tackle and defensive end. I settled on defensive tackle because he fit better in the overall scheme, but he could have made the Dream Team as a defensive end as well.

Young did it all in his 14 glorious seasons, all with the 49ers. During that time, he dropped the quarterback 89.5 times, good for second on the all-time 49ers list. He also collected 627 tackles and forced 12 fumbles in his long, illustrious career.

With production like that, it's no wonder he helped bring home a Super Bowl trophy and ended up securing four Pro Bowls with one All-Pro selection. Young belongs on this 49ers Dream Team.

Dana Stubblefield (Defensive Tackle) – Other than having a last name that John Madden loved to slaughter, Stubblefield carved out a nice career for himself in the red and gold. His massive six-foot-two, 300-pound frame anchored the middle of the 49ers defensive line for seven seasons.

He put up more than solid numbers during that time. His 46.5 sacks are good for eighth on the all-time 49ers list. His 301 combined tackles and seven forced fumbles round out a pretty decent stat sheet. As a defensive tackle, there are few who fare better.

Patrick Willis (Linebacker) – No 49ers Dream Team would be complete without Willis's name. He stands as one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the game. Willis was, indeed, a pleasure to watch. Few offensive players could outsmart him. Had his career not been cut short by chronic foot injuries to a mere eight seasons, he could have accomplished so much more.

Not that he didn't accomplish a whole lot in a short time. His 950 combined tackles blow away everyone else on the list. Even the great Ronnie Lott has to take second place to Willis in this category. And with 16 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and eight interceptions to his name, Willis proved he could do it all. That's a great career, one that planted him on the Hall of Fame All-2010s team and firmly on this 49ers Dream Team.

Navarro Bowman (Linebacker) – It's hard to believe that two of the greatest linebackers in 49ers history struggled with injuries so mightily in their careers. Willis was one. Bowman is the other. Yet, here they both are, and both, including Bowman, deserve it!

Defenses bowed to Bowman's talent. When he and Willis roamed the middle of the field at the same time for the 49ers, few made it through to tell about it. They clamped down on drives that held games in check so that the offense could work its magic.

Bowman put up strong numbers for only playing seven seasons. With the 49ers, he recorded 709 total tackles with 14 sacks and five interceptions to boot. His three Pro Bowls and extraordinary play plant him firmly as one of the greatest 49ers defenders of all time. He certainly deserves a place on this list.

Ken Norton Jr. (Linebacker) – It's hard to believe that Ken Norton Jr. roamed the 49ers' defense longer than he did for the Cowboys, but that's exactly what happened. In his thirteen seasons, he played seven for San Francisco. I remember watching Norton play for Dallas, helping them overcome the 49ers on multiple occasions. What a relief to see him shed that Cowboys uniform and play for the right team!

For Norton, it paid off. He ended up winning a Super Bowl with the Niners and earned two Pro Bowl nods while playing in the Bay Area. He collected 693 total tackles while grabbing four interceptions and scoring on two of them. He also scooped up seven fumbles and forced six.

His stats and veteran leadership made him indispensable to the 49ers during the 90s. He's one of the greatest linebackers to play in red and gold and deserves a place on this list as well.

Conclusion: There you have it! What are your thoughts? Think you have better choices? Drop them in the comments, and we'll see you next time for our picks for second-team offense.
  • Written by:
    Bill has written for a wide variety of online publications, ranging in topics from academics and education to life management and public speaking. He has also written for regional publications. However, one burning passion drives him more than most others: his obsessive loyalty to the 49ers franchise. Practically born into it, he bleeds red and gold. He also enjoys public speaking and talking about himself in the third person.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

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