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Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Picking the 49ers’ best player at each position from the last decade

Jul 3, 2019 at 5:52 AM

With the 2010s coming to a close this season, 49ers Webzone goes back to look at the best 49ers player at each position this decade.

The 2010s started off relatively well for the San Francisco 49ers, as the team reached three consecutive NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl under former head coach Jim Harbaugh between the 2011 and 2013 seasons. In the years since, of course, things haven't gone so well. But that doesn't mean San Francisco entirely lacked talent.

So it's no surprise that the best players at each position largely center around those teams which were perennial playoff contenders.

That said, with the 2010 decade winding down, a number of other players ended up solidifying themselves as the best at their positions on what would be a Niners "all-decade" team with 2020 just over the horizon.

Who would be San Francisco's best player at each position for the decade? Let's take a look.

Kicker: Robbie Gould

It's a bit of a tossup between the 49ers' current kicker, Robbie Gould, and the well-established Phil Dawson, who was a major weapon between 2013 and 2016. But Gould's 96.0 field-goal percentage still ranks No. 1 among all Niners place kickers of all time. He gets the nod here.

Now, for Gould to end his 2019 holdout.

Punter: Andy Lee

Why the 49ers elected to move on from their perennial Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee in 2015 is anyone's guess. It was likely a financial decision, but that doesn't erase Lee's two first-team All-Pro nods with San Francisco earlier in the decade. Lee's replacement, Bradley Pinion, never came close to reaching such accolades.

With Pinion gone, the hope for the Niners is their most recent punter acquisition, Mitch Wishnowsky, becomes the team's player of the decade at his position for the 2020s.

Safety: Donte Whitner

One of the reasons Harbaugh's 49ers were so effective was because of a lockdown, physical defense. And few players during the earlier part of the decade epitomized that more than safety Donte Whitner, who spent 2011 through 2013 in San Francisco, earning a Pro Bowl nomination and forcing five fumbles during that three-year span.

Fellow safety Eric Reid gets a hat tip here, as he made the Pro Bowl his rookie season. But Reid wasn't quite the intimidating presence over the middle that Whitner was.

Cornerback: Tramaine Brock

This was a bit tougher to decide. For much of the decade, the 49ers put a bigger emphasis on the front seven and got by with only average cornerbacks. The approach worked, judging by how effective San Francisco's defense was under Harbaugh and then-defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

But we have to decide, so cornerback Tramaine Brock gets the nod over the No. 2 option on the list, Tarell Brown. Brock finished his Niners tenure with 11 interceptions, while Brown had only seven with San Francisco during the decade.

For the deciding factor, just remember Brock broke up the pass, which eventually led to linebacker NaVorro Bowman's famous "Pick at the Stick" play to close out Candlestick Park in 2013.

Linebacker: NaVorro Bowman

This was a lot tougher to decide, and you should know the two options: Bowman and Patrick Willis.

In all seriousness, you could pick either and wouldn't be wrong. Bowman and Willis combined to create arguably the best linebacking tandem in recent NFL history. And both were perennial Pro Bowlers, too.

What separates Bowman from Willis, though, is the idea the former ended up taking over the tougher, more-active linebacker duties as early as 2012. For the better part of the decade, Bowman was San Francisco's best defender, even leading the league with 154 tackles in 2015 after missing all of the 2014 season following his devastating knee injury in the playoffs earlier that year. One can only wonder what Bowman's career would have looked like had he avoided the injury.

Defensive Line: Justin Smith

Recency bias may point to the 49ers' best defensive lineman being their 2016 first-round NFL Draft pick, DeForest Buckner. But Buckner was the successful attempt to replace a player they sorely missed following his sudden retirement in 2015, defensive end Justin Smith.

Smith, who never recorded the lofty sack totals or tackles year to year, was still the linchpin of what was arguably the most dominant defensive line of the decade. He regularly drew double and triple teams, freeing up San Francisco's pass-rushers, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, to make plays on one-on-one blocks. Smith was essentially the reason why the Niners experienced so much success using a 3-4 base defense, too. They tried for a while to keep this defense after Smith retired, but it never worked out to desired results.

Offensive Line: Joe Staley

This is a no-brainer. Veteran left tackle Joe Staley has been a stalwart along the 49ers offensive line since 2007, and that doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon.

If there has been one Niners constant this decade, it's been Staley.

Tight End: George Kittle

Like Smith, there are a couple of choices for the 49ers' all-decade tight end. But with George Kittle setting the NFL single-season record for most receiving yards by a tight end (1,377) in 2018, plus becoming the first Niners pass catcher to record 1,000 receiving yards in a single year since wide receiver Anquan Boldin back in 2014, you get the nod over the other choice, Vernon Davis.

Wide Receiver: Anquan Boldin

Speaking of Boldin, he makes the list for the 49ers' best wide receiver of the 2010s. While he only spent three seasons in San Francisco, Boldin managed over 3,000 combined yards during that stretch and was the most reliable Niners pass catcher of that particular era.

Boldin was certainly impressive, yes. But the lack of other candidates on this list suggest just how short the 49ers have been at the position in recent history. Fellow receiver Michael Crabtree never panned out to desired results, and no one should bring up the name, A.J. Jenkins.

At least Boldin helped make up the difference.

Running Back: Frank Gore

Thankfully, another no-brainer.

Running back Frank Gore is en route to the Hall of Fame, and he managed to set the franchise's all-time rushing record, too. Just think, the majority of those carries came before 2010, when Gore was arguably the lone reliable offensive weapon on San Francisco's roster during those dark years. And when the 49ers finally got back to a level of respectability, Gore remained a massive part of the team's offensive game plan.

Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick

Forget politics for a second. Between 2012 and 2013, quarterback Colin Kaepernick was one of the most electrifying players in the entire league. And anyone who has any doubts should go back and watch Kap's domination of the Green Bay Packers during the playoffs back in January of 2013.

Kaepernick's two-year stretch during those years paralleled a time when the Niners were considered regular Super Bowl contenders. He was a big reason why.

Sure, some may argue San Francisco could have made the Super Bowl, perhaps even winning it, with the No. 2 quarterback on this would-be list, Alex Smith. Had Smith stayed healthy through the 2012 season, that might have been the case.

But Kaepernick got the nod and took advantage of it for the next two seasons.
  • Written by:
    Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game and the Niners' flagship station, KNBR 680. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to his Twitter account.
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.


  • Jose Martinez
    Alex over Kaep and Willis over Navarro.
    Jul 16, 2019 at 12:00 PM
  • Mikecortese
    Deforest Buckner can no way be compared to Justin Smith. Buckner has a make or break year. If he doesn't get at least 8 sacks this year, consider the guy a bust. Nuff said.
    Jul 11, 2019 at 8:38 PM
  • Jesse Dumas
    Very enjoyable piece, Mr. Panacy. Other, snowflakier commenters might say otherwise but I think that most of your picks were spot on. Especially liked your thoughts on CB but I'd have given Carlos Rodgers a little consideration too. Didn't have gawdy numbers but he forced a lot of throws to the other side of the field and was tough in run support. One of the better FA pickups Baalke made during his time as GM.
    Jul 10, 2019 at 8:02 AM
  • ML
    NO to Kaepernick. Alex Smith played that whole regular season which brought them to the playoffs & Superbowl. Kap just had a few good games as a runner. Not really a big Alex Smith fan, but the truth is the truth...
    Jul 3, 2019 at 12:25 PM
  • TB
    Had to ruin it at the end didn't you
    Jul 3, 2019 at 8:05 AM

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