The San Francisco 49ers are well-represented on PFF’s top 101 players list for 2019, as six players from the team made the cut. It shouldn’t be difficult to guess those players. Let’s start at the bottom of the list and work our way up. The criteria were that the list was based on 2019 performance only, and “all positions are created equal.” The postseason counts, too.
DeForest Buckner has been one of the best players in the league for a while, but he took it to another level this year after the 49ers put some legitimate edge rushers around him to maximize his impact on the game. His postseason run meant he ended the year with the most pressure he has had in a single season, and this represents his third consecutive season with an overall PFF grade north of 80.0. Buckner has solid grades across the board and is a player with no real weaknesses.
Buckner was voted the team MVP by his coaches. It’s not so much that he got off to a slow start this season as much as it was the two other defensive linemen that will be revealed later played at an All-Pro level. Buckner finished the season with seven sacks in his final ten games. He certainly belongs on the list.
A player who has played a variety of positions in his NFL career, Jimmie Ward had a career year this season for the 49ers as part of a vastly improved roster overall. Ward topped 80.0 in overall PFF grade for the first time in his career, spending the majority of his time as a free safety but also lining up at times in the slot and in the box as a strong safety. Ward had eight pass breakups on the season, despite not getting on the field until Week 5, and he showed a real knack for playmaking once the 49ers improved their pass-rush to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
I knew Ward was a good player before this season, but I had no idea he was as “football smart” as he showed in 2019. Ward took calculated risks that often paid off. The 49ers were tops in the NFL at limiting the big play, and the guy who was the last line of defense deserves a ton of credit. Ward finishing the season with five missed tackles in 16 games explains why you didn’t see many big plays. Ward needs to be a priority this offseason for the 49ers.
The potential red flags of this big jump in performance in a contract year is a problem for others come free agency, but for the purposes of this list, we need to just celebrate how good Arik Armstead was this season in the 49ers’ reinvigorated defensive front. Armstead ended the year with the fourth-best overall PFF grade (89.8), and while the Super Bowl wasn’t his best game, he added 11 total pressures across three playoff outings to end with 73 across all games, one short of exactly doubling his previous career-high. Armstead also produced 42 defensive stops, 19 more than his previous best.
Tough to disagree with anything that was said above. I’m in the minority here, but I thought Armstead was the best defender on the team this season. He put up a dud in the Super Bowl but was superb all year. Because he is 26-years old and has been trending in the right way, I wouldn’t bat an eye if the 49ers gave Armstead a big contract. A franchise tag may make more sense as a one-year, “prove it again” deal. If a team wants to match the tag, the 49ers get a first-round pick out of it. Armstead can play and win anywhere on the defensive line, which is borderline impossible to find. This ranking may seem high to some, but he was that good this year.
One of the most impressive rookies PFF has seen over the past decade-plus of grading, Bosa ended the season with the most total pressures ever recorded by a first-year pass-rusher during the PFF era (2006 – present). He only added to that total in the playoffs, with a ridiculous 22 extra pressures across three games. In the biggest game of them all — the Super Bowl — Bosa recorded an absurd 12 total pressures and a pass-rush win rate over 30% in a losing effort, and he could easily have been seen as the best player on the field in that game. Nick Bosa was a true pass-rushing force as a rookie — 2020 and beyond could be scary for the rest of the NFL.
Just a rookie cracking the top-30, nothing to see here. Bosa’s best games of the season came in the playoffs, and he’s only going to get better as a player. There isn’t much else to say about him other than the rest of Bosa’s career—assuming he’s healthy—he’ll be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s that good.
The Super Bowl wasn’t the best game of his season, but Richard Sherman was phenomenal overall this season, and he was back to his best in coverage after working his way back from an Achilles injury a couple of seasons back. Sherman won our Best Coverage Defender Award this season, allowing a passer rating of just 45.3 over the entire season, including that Super Bowl performance. He surrendered just 227 receiving yards in the regular season, a figure some corners managed to allow in just a couple of games.
Hello. Sherman sneaking into the top-15 is a bit of a surprise when you consider Stephon Gilmore is outside of the top-20. Passer rating is a flawed stat as it doesn’t adjust for. YAC, pressure, drops, and a few other vital parts of the game. I lean on success rate as it adjusts for the situation. It’s described as giving up 45 percent of yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third down. Even when you filter success rate to 35 targets, Sherman ranked 39th. Let’s say, I disagree.
That’s not to take away from what Sherman did this season. He was still really, really good. He deserved to be an All-Pro and was a big reason the 49ers were one of the best passing defenses in history. Add in his run support, and you have yourself a great player.
George Kittle was the best player in football in 2019. That doesn’t mean he was the most impactful or the most valuable, but on a snap-by-snap basis compared to other players, nobody was as good as the 49ers’ tight end. Kittle topped 1,000 receiving yards for the second season in a row and was one of the league’s most effective players after the catch. He averaged 7.3 yards per catch after the ball arrived in his hands, the most among players with 50 or more receptions, and he broke 20 tackles, which led all tight ends and wideouts. He was also a run-blocking monster, caving defenders from safeties to defensive linemen to the floor and opening up holes for the San Francisco ground attack. His overall PFF grade was 95.0, which is the best grade PFF has ever given to a tight end — including Rob Gronkowski — and the best grade of any player, at any position, in football this year.
Whew. I’m not saying Kittle was the best player in the league, but I wouldn’t argue against it. Kittle broke the receiving record for tight ends a season ago and found a way to get better. Kittle is set to receive a massive extension this offseason. After the start of his career, and how 2019 went, give him whatever he wants.