Over at ESPN, the folks at Scouts Inc are starting to publish all their preview content for the 2011 NFL season. They're projecting a 6-10 record and a spot in the cellar for the 49ers. They're projecting St. Louis at 9-7 and Seattle and Arizona at 7-9. I'm always down for less respect heading into the season. Several times over the last five years the 49ers have been the chic pick to win the NFC West and each time they've gone up in a ball of flames. No respect is better for this team.
Along with the basic previews, Scouts Inc. put together a list of 32 players (one from each team) that are impossible to game-plan against. They named it the V-Factor after Michael Vick. Take that however you want. For the San Francisco 49ers, KC Joyner went with linebacker Patrick Willis. Not a shocker:
Every team enters a game against the 49ers with a plan to block him. But the four-year vet's career average of 9.4 tackles per game shows that few of them have found a scheme that works. Even if teams do get a man in front of him, Willis has the ability to evade him (26 career stuffs and 15 sacks).
In reality, each of the 32 players (and Vick) cane be game-planned against in some way. Most games they are going to wreak havoc, but once in a while they'll have a down game (avoiding the thunderbolt).
I think you could make an argument that Justin Smith is right up there with Willis in terms of tough players to game-plan against. Willis has the higher upside, but last season Smith was an absolute monster on the field. Although he often doesn't accumulate the gaudy tackle or sack statistics, there is no doubt that Justin Smith is as consistent a force in pressuring opposing quarterbacks as anybody in the 49ers defense.
Maybe Aldon Smith can develop into that down the road. Maybe Patrick Willis is adding improved pass rusher to his repertoire. For now though, Justin Smith remains an essential aspect of the pass rush. It's kind of bizarre considering the role we often see with 3-4 defensive ends as guys opening up holes for the outside linebackers. However, Smith is much more of a hybrid defensive end that can do just about anything on the field.
A guy like Vernon Davis might also be in the mix for difficulty to game-plan against, but as it stands I think Patrick Willis and Justin Smith are at the top of the list. Any other guys on the roster at this point that fit this role?