The 49ers have had a whirlwind of a season, starting off 2-0 before proceeding to lose four straight, which was followed by their recent 4-1 stretch, where they’ve won three straight games to place themselves back into the NFC playoff race.
While some players have been relatively quiet over this stretch, others have exceeded expectations, putting the 49ers in a position to win on a weekly basis.
Since the offseason, much of the focus has been placed towards the quarterback position, where starter Jimmy Garoppolo, who carries a $27.5 million cap hit, has had an up-and-down season, reflected most clearly by San Francisco’s wavering record. Still, the 30-year old quarterback has recently put the 49ers in a position to consistently win football games, playing the role of the game manager during the process.
But, let’s shy away from the spotlight of the quarterbacks, and share some love to the other key contributors on this football team with the top five team “MVPs” up to date.
Honorable Mention: LB Azeez Al-Shaair
To be honest, there are a LOT of deserving players on this football team. After all, there are 22 starters that go out and perform to the best of their abilities every Sunday.
But, wow, Azeez Al-Shaair has developed right in front of our eyes. The 24-year old linebacker took over for Week 1 starter Dre Greenlaw after the latter suffered a major groin injury following a pick-six of Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff.
After being given the opportunity, the third-year pro has taken off with it and hasn’t looked back.
Known for blowing up run-plays, and recently for his interception of Kirk Cousins, Al-Shaair is a flashy player who occasionally misses tackles, but has come up big for this 49ers team as a key contributor on a defense with a lack of playmakers this season. Al-Shaair has also been an asset in zone coverage, setting up an effective pass coverage duo with former All-Pro Fred Warner.
With 70 tackles and 5 tackles for loss, Al-Shaair is second on the 49ers in both categories, and has turned from a serviceable backup in run-situations to a highly talented starter that continues to evolve.
Al-Shaair continues to make strides, as he’s been given the middle linebacker duties, and the playcalling headset that comes with it, with Fred Warner out this weekend against Seattle with a hamstring strain.
#5: CB Emmanuel Moseley
Emmanuel Moseley is THE most underrated player on this 49ers defense. I reiterated the same statement in my “Most Underrated 49ers” piece, but Moseley deserves the attention with his stellar play this season.
In the NFL, cornerbacks aren’t as appreciated, especially those not known for their highlight plays, like Dallas’s Trevon Diggs or New England’s JC Jackson. Just look at Atlanta’s A.J. Terrell, who has been a lockdown man-coverage cornerback this season, but is out-shadowed by a poor Atlanta defense.
Now, San Francisco’s defense is not nearly as bad as Atlanta’s, but the issues with the secondary, undoubtedly, is San Francisco’s weakest position group this season, which has taken the spotlight from Emmanuel Moseley’s brilliance this season as a coverage corner.
This season, Moseley leads the team by a wide margin in passes defended with ten, with Al-Shaair being second on the team with four. In addition, Moseley’s allowed just a 56.9% completion rate on 51 targets and zero touchdowns, as well as an opposing passer rating of 74.0, which is well above average.
While he has four missed tackles, Moseley’s proven to be an effective tackler with great defensive instincts when approaching receivers or running backs in space. More importantly, Moseley has been relatively healthy for a secondary in dire need of top-tier talent, playing in 97% of San Francisco’s defensive snaps since Week 3.
While Al-Shaair has certainly been a valuable young piece for the 49ers, Moseley has provided more value at his position this season, shielding the 49ers from being a complete defensive liability in the secondary, which is why he’s #5 on this list.
#4: Elijah Mitchell
Where would this offense be without Elijah Mitchell? Seriously. The rookie’s impact on this San Francisco offense in 2021 has been unmatched and the most exciting part about the Mitchell is that he’s still developing more each week. Maybe it’s true that playing rookies might actually help them develop more.
The Louisiana product has rushed for 693 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and is 11th in rushing yards in the NFL, despite having played in just eight of a possible 11 games this season.
Looking at per-game averages, Mitchell skyrockets, as his 86.6 rushing yards per game ranks fourth in the NFL, behind Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor, and Nick Chubb. That’s some pretty elite company if you ask me.
Even more impressively, the rookie running back has ZERO fumbles this season. That’s right, zero, on his 143 carries.
Going back to the 49ers, Mitchell has been the momentum in this offense, as he’s had four 100+ yard rushing games this season. Additionally, Mitchell’s been heavily relied on recently, as he’s put up 27 carries in both of his last two games, serving as the bell-cow over San Francisco’s tiring and extensive offensive drives.
Is he the multi-dimensional weapon that Deebo Samuel is? No, but Mitchell has been special in his rookie season, exerting his toughness, elusiveness, and vision, week in and week out, to help the 49ers win football games offensively.
Mitchell’s had an indirect impact on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, whose role becomes significantly simpler with such an effective rushing weapon, setting up less responsibilities for the veteran quarterback, allowing him to do what he does best: be a game manager.
The 23-year old running back has turned into somewhat of a safety net for Garoppolo off late, as he’s caught five passes in two of the last three games on a variety of checkdowns and screen plays.
#25 is going to especially be needed this Sunday against the Seahawks, as the 49ers will not have Deebo Samuel due to a minor groin strain, placing even more emphasis on the importance of the rookie in the offense.
As seen in the clip, Mitchell has the uncanny ability of a two-dimensional back: he’s able to power through defenders, turning one or two-yard plays into five-yard plays, while also possessing the speed to accelerate on the outside zone, getting into the second level of the defense with ease.
Over the season, the 5’10, 200 pound back’s vision has consistently improved, as he’s been able to identify holes created by the offensive line and make the right reads to extend plays, and should only continue to improve in this offensive scheme, where head coach Kyle Shanahan is able to utilize Mitchell’s strengths to produce an effective offense.
#3: DE Nick Bosa
How could we talk about San Francisco’s most important pieces and not include the heart of their defense?
Nick Bosa has been the weekly conundrum, in that he continuously gets held by offensive lineman, yet rarely gets any officiating calls in his favor. Perhaps, it’s because the world knows he’s just too dominant on the defensive line.
After suffering a torn ACL in San Francisco’s Week 2 win against the New York Jets in 2020, Bosa rehabbed all offseason and has come back even better than before. Through 11 games this season, Bosa’s accumulated 11 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 36 pressures, while also leading the league with 16 tackles for loss.
To put it in perspective, Bosa had nine sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble over the course of his entire rookie season, which was still an amazing season, given the talent on that defensive line.
In the offseason, DeMeco Ryans was fairly straight-forward: the defensive line was the anchor of the defense, while the linebackers and secondary would follow suit.
While the remainder of the defensive line has underwhelmed at times, such as Arik Armstead, who’s wavered off after a promising start, Bosa has been the staple of this 49ers defense all season, often attracting multiple linemen, and still continuing to wreak havoc in the backfield.
Bosa’s recorded a sack in the last three games, including a two-sack performance against Jacksonville, which could be a testament to the 49ers offense, whose sustained, time-killing drives have allowed the defense to rest up, making them as effective as possible when on the field, especially Bosa.
The 24-year old defensive end has undoubtedly been San Francisco’s best defender, but ranks only at #3 on this list, because offense, not defense, is where the 49ers have excelled this season.
#2: LT Trent Williams
Trent Williams continues to amaze me whenever I see him, which is one of the reasons the 49ers are such an exciting team to watch on Sundays. Williams does the dirty work, but, nonetheless, is appreciated for the lanes he creates for whoever San Francisco plays at the running back position, be it Mitchell, Deebo Samuel(who we might talk about sometime soon), Jeff Wilson Jr., or RB1 Jimmy Garoppolo.
To place his season into context, Williams has been the highest-graded PFF player in the NFL in 2021, and potentially could be on pace to be the highest player ever graded in PFF history.
In the offseason, Williams signed a record-breaking six-year, $138 million extension with San Francisco, despite him being 32 years old, and he’s performed admirably, staying healthy over his first two seasons in SF.
Deebo with a Trent Williams pancake on the end of the line
I really hope people realize that Trent Williams is playing some historically great football right now
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) November 28, 2021
Just look at Williams’s dominance. He run-blocks with such ease, using the pure strength in his 320 pound frame, and is no slouch in the passing game as well.
The 49ers were presumed to have offensive line struggles at the beginning of the season, with a lack of options at right guard and Mike McGlinchey being a question mark in pass protection.
However, spearheaded by Williams, this offensive line has exceeded expectations, with Laken Tomlinson and Mike McGlinchey both elevating to new levels, while the acquisition of Alex Mack has been wonderful.
Being the best offensive lineman in the NFL, Williams gives the 49ers a constant amount of rushing holes, making it no surprise that running back Elijah Mitchell works best when running to the left side.
In the outside zone scheme that Shanahan implements, the 33-year old’s agility allows for him to get to second levels of the defense easily, opening up the possibility for big plays, as well flexibility in the passing game.
Now, Trent Williams might be in consideration as the best player on this football team, but there’s just one unquestionable MVP on this 49ers team.
#1. WR/RB Deebo Samuel
Fantasy owners should be allowed to play Deebo Samuel at running back.
Over the last three weeks, Deebo Samuel has more rushing yards, with 181, than receiving yards, with 124, despite being second in receiving yards in the NFL through the first ten weeks of the season.
The ultimate gadget weapon in the NFL, Samuel has been utilized in the backfield recently, which has been a major success for the 49ers’ offense, as the 25-year old receiver has rushed for 8.1 yards per carry and five touchdowns on the season.
Following an injury-riddled sophomore season in which Samuel played in just seven games, the third-year pro has exploded on the scene in 2021, as he’s caught 56 passes for 1006 yards, has rushed for 203 yards, and has accumulated 10 total touchdowns.
Samuel has impressively gained 14.9 yards per touch, which ranks best in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference, and also has 1206 total scrimmage yards, trailing only Jonathan Taylor and Cooper Kupp.
Samuel has single-handedly transformed the 49ers offense with his versatility, complementing Elijah Mitchell in Shanahan’s outside-zone scheme, while also best working after the catch, another staple of Shanahan’s offense.
In a talented 2019 wide receiver class, consisting of Samuel, A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin, San Francisco’s second-round pick is arguably the best talent, with the build of a running back and the speed of a receiver.
At this point, there’s nothing Samuel can’t do. Hell, throw him at quarterback for a play.
He’s the MVP of this team, and possibly even the MVP of the league, given how unique of a player he is.
- Rohan Chakravarthi
Writer/Reporter for 49ers Webzone
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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