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49ers: Assembling the Perfect Defense

James LeBreton
Jul 4, 2017 at 11:32 AM

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The San Francisco 49ers have had some of the greatest players of all time suit up for the franchise. Members of the offense have put up record-breaking numbers, while the defense has stymied opposing offenses to the point of frustration and tears. But what if you could take the best players from different positions, no matter the era, to make one super team? Which side of the roster would come out on top, and more importantly how would it stack up against other teams and their all-time greats? Make no mistake, the job of the offense is to put points on the board, and several of the 49ers' offenses have done so throughout the years with ease. However, it can't be said enough or any more cleanly than this: defense wins championships. And this defense would do some serious damage on the field. Here are eleven of the greatest 49ers defenders of all time, on one team:

Fred Dean

Dean is one of the most underrated players in 49ers history. After spending six seasons with the San Diego Chargers, the Louisiana native was dealt to San Francisco for a second-round pick, a move that left many scratching their heads. Heralded as the one who pulled the dynasty together for its decade of dominance, he was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Before his arrival, the 49ers suffered three consecutive losing seasons totaling an unimpressive 10 wins in 38 regular season games. His unofficial total sack total of 93 is almost as amazing as his football resume. Dean is a two-time Super Bowl champion, a four-time Pro Bowler and the 1981 NFC Player of the Year. If you've seen him play you understand this selection for greatest all-time defensive end. If you haven't seen him play, once you do, you'll understand why.

Justin Smith

Known as "The Cowboy" since his earlier days in Cincinnati, Big Smitty lined up as an end before switching to tackle later in his career. Smith played an impressive 221 games while starting in 185 consecutive games and 217 overall. He played injured, but his production never wavered. From sideline to sideline, snap to whistle, Smith was a fierce competitor and represented his team well as a leader. His arrival to the 49ers sparked an incredible run that saw appearances in three straight NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. He handled the double team with ease, created a lane for the outside pass rush and left a giant hole at his position when he retired. It's never easy for a team to lose a player like this. His dominance knew no boundaries. Smith redefined the five tech position and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Bryant Young

No one dominated the middle of the defensive line quite like Bryant Young. For 14 NFL seasons and 208 games, he was the anchor of the defense and the uncontested leader of the 49ers. His 89.5 career sack total ranks third in franchise history and fourth on the all-time list at his position. In 1998, he suffered a season-ending injury and what could be considered a career-ending injury for most other players. After surgery and intense physical therapy, Young came back in 1999 stronger than ever. He started all 16 games and won the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year Award. He was the 1994 NFC Rookie of the Year, a Super Bowl champion and a four-time Pro Bowler. His teammates voted him recipient of the Len Eshmont award for most courageous and inspirational player eight times. That alone speaks volumes about the kind of teammate and player that he was. Following the conclusion of his last game, Young was given the ultimate showing of respect as he was carried out on the shoulders of his teammates.

Charles Haley

Bill Kostroun-Associated Press

The five-time Super Bowl champion dominated defenses with speed and natural ability from start to finish. Charles Haley split his 13-year career between the 49ers and the then-Conference rival Dallas Cowboys. He was the most passionate player on the field and the most colorful in the locker room. So colorful, in fact, that he sparked a feud with head coach George Seifert, which led to Haley being traded to Dallas for second- and third-round selections. As stated previously, it wasn't for a lack of production. His first season on the Cowboys, as a result of his play, the defense improved from number 17 to number one overall. Number 94 played as an outside linebacker, but he spent more time rushing the passer at defensive end. He's earned just about every honor the NFL has to offer. In 1998, he returned to the 49ers for two more seasons before he officially retired. Two years ago he took his rightful place in the Hall of Fame, capping off one of the most acclaimed careers in NFL history.

Ken Norton, Jr.

Norton was a thorn in San Francisco's side for six seasons while he played in Dallas. The 49ers got the last laugh, however, when they signed him to a five-year contract in 1994. He was one of the first free agent signings for a team that would go on to win the Super Bowl in January of 1995. Norton didn't just bring the pain to opposing offenses, he also put a hurting on fellow teammates. In one season, the feared defender broke Napoleon McCallum's leg, blew out Richard Dent's knee and knocked out two of Dana Stubblefield's teeth in a pregame collision. His talent knew no boundaries and sometimes others paid the price. Norton was a playmaker and proved his reliability from start to finish. In his last season on the Cowboys, Norton tore his bicep, but continued to play for the remainder of the season. He didn't just compete, he started every game, and his numbers were staggering. Norton was an All-Pro, made three trips to Hawaii and is a three-time Super Bowl champion. In fact, he's the only player in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls. That feat has yet to be duplicated and is one for the record books.

Patrick Willis

Having Patrick Willis on the field was like having three men on the field. He could chase down receivers, stuff the run and shut down the pass against opposing tight ends. In seven full NFL seasons, he was elected to seven consecutive Pro Bowls. He was the undeniable leader of the defense and for football fans in general, his retirement came way too soon. Prior to the draft, Willis was pegged as a late first-rounder, but after an impressive day at the Combine, his draft stock soared. The 49ers offered Willis a show of good faith by selecting him with the 11th pick overall. In his first year with San Francisco, he thanked the team by becoming the only rookie to make the AP All-Pro squad and the first 49ers defensive rookie to make the Pro Bowl since Ronnie Lott did so in 1981. In seven-and-a-half seasons, his overall numbers were astonishing, to say the least. Although he never took home the highly coveted Lombardi Trophy, Patrick Willis will be forever known as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.

Dave Wilcox

Nicknamed "the Intimidator," Dave Wilcox wreaked havoc on opposing defenses for 11 seasons. He was a shut-down defender but his specialty was eliminating the tight end in passing situations. He led the 49ers to four winning seasons and orchestrated three consecutive trips to the playoffs. Wilcox was also as durable as they come, as he missed only one game due to injury during his brilliant 11-year career. He was elected to seven Pro Bowls and was named to the All-NFL team four times. Wilcox welcomed all challenges and never once fell short in pressure situations. He was considered the finest linebacker of his era and was described as unblockable due to his speed and long reach. He capped off an incredible career in the year 2000 as his achievements were finally recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Deion Sanders

Many might be skeptical of the selection because he only played one season in a 49ers uniform, but in that one season alone Sanders' play justified this nomination. After five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, Deion brought his talents to the Bay Area. Sanders was the final free agent to join the team after an offseason that would see many new faces on both sides of the ball. The secondary was already considered a position of strength, but with the addition of Sanders, it became elite. In his only season with the 49ers, Sanders allowed just one touchdown in 14 games. The All-Pro cornerback intercepted six passes that season, returning them for a season-high three touchdowns. He was the missing piece who helped the team best the two-time champion Cowboys and one of many reasons why the 49ers won the Super Bowl.

Eric Wright

Wright manned the secondary in San Francisco for ten seasons and started on four championship rosters. His best season was in 1983, during which he intercepted seven passes, returning two of them for defensive scores. Although Dwight Clark was responsible for "The Catch," it was Wright who made a game-saving tackle to preserve the win over Dallas. Due to the talent on the rest of the secondary, Wright was targeted quite a bit yet he handled it like an All-Pro. Snagging him in the second round of the 1981 draft after selecting Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott was a victory on its own as Wright had an amazing career.

Ronnie Lott

Mickey Pfleger-SI/Getty Images

Lott is quite possibly the greatest 49ers defender of all time. He made receivers think twice about journeying over the middle and punished the ones who were foolish enough to try. The eight-time All-Pro led the league in interceptions twice, had ten Pro Bowl nominations and was named to two All-Decade teams. Ronnie earned the left cornerback spot early in his first training camp and never looked back. His versatility was invaluable as he played cornerback and both safety positions during his career. Lott had a knack for knowing where the play was going to develop. He also had a reputation for being one of the hardest hitters in the history of the NFL. He knocked down passes with ease and was one of the greatest open field tacklers of all time. Lott played in 20 postseason games, and is currently eighth all time in interceptions. He is one of only five 49ers to play in four Super Bowls, his number 42 is retired, and he was a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection. Players like Lott come around once in a lifetime. Luckily for San Francisco, he was available at pick number eight in the 1981 Draft.

Tim McDonald

After six seasons with the Cardinals and three Pro Bowl nominations, Tim McDonald decided it was time to rewrite history. He, along with other players, took part in the Freeman McNeil lawsuit. This was a case set forth by the players to bring a new lenient form of free agency to the league. For his efforts, he tested the market and was awarded a five-year deal by San Francisco. McDonald was the backbone of the 49ers' defense and the foundational piece that helped them secure a fifth Super Bowl victory. He played 191 games in his career, totaled 40 interceptions and was nominated to six Pro Bowls. He was efficient against the pass, tough against the run and the undeniable leader of the defense. McDonald not only gave NFL players the freedom they have today, he helped San Francisco's defense continue its dominance on the field.

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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.


  • AJ Dembroski
    I don't feel like Deion's one season should allow him on this list. Just my opinion. That's Jimmy Johnson's spot. I think NaVarro Bowman and Keena Turner should both get the nod over Ken Norton Jr. (much as I loved him and still do). Otherwise, nothing to argue with. Nice.
    Jul 6, 2017 at 5:15 PM
  • kt49er
    He only played a few seasons until he had the career ending/life threatening injury, but Jeff Fuller over Tim McDonald.
    Jul 5, 2017 at 7:34 AM
  • jj37
    Jimmy Johnson was the greatest cover corner of his generation and the greatest Niner corner of all-time! To put that one-year rental who was a major liability in run defense over him is insane! Yes, he made a couple of great plays in big games, but he was in those big games because he had other great players around him; Johnson had none of that help, but he was still great for 15 years, AS A NINER!
    Jul 4, 2017 at 10:06 PM
  • Monsterniner
    Norton Jr over Bowman?
    Jul 4, 2017 at 6:30 PM
  • Koko Chingo
    Where is Hardy Brown on the list? He send a ton people to the hospital. Ronnie Lot drew his inspiration from him and would call him the toughest football player.
    Jul 4, 2017 at 6:15 PM

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