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San Francisco 49ers

Niners boast several Pro Bowl hopefuls despite difficult season

Jon Chik

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49ers Fullback Kyle Juszczyk

For a team with only three wins, San Francisco has a surprising number of players that could be bound for Orlando next month. Some would be making their first trip, and some mainstays would once again be heading back. With rosters set to be announce this Tuesday, we’re looking at several of San Francisco’s superstars to be included on the Pro Bowl squad.

George Kittle (No prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 69 receptions, 1,103 yards, 4 TDs

The skinny: What. A. Season. Following Kittle’s strong conclusion to the 2017 campaign, 49er Faithful entered this year with high expectations for the second-year tight end, but nobody could have been ready for this.

Kittle has taken the league by storm, showing an incredible catch radius, soft hands and surprising breakaway speed after the catch. Factor in his superb run blocking, and the argument could be made that he’s the best all-around tight end in football. Yes, including Travis Kelce.

Given the lack of production from San Francisco’s wideouts, Kittle’s importance to the Niner offense cannot be understated.

Signature performance: As if there was any doubt who was the top tight end in the NFC, Kittle exploded in San Francisco’s last game before Pro Bowl voting concluded, racking up 210 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions against an overwhelmed Denver defense in Week 14. Displaying otherworldly athleticism for a man his size, Kittle was all over the gridiron and fell just shy of breaking Shannon Sharpe’s single-game record for receiving yards by a tight end.

Long-term prospects: Kittle has emerged as the crown jewel of John Lynch’s first two draft classes, an absolute steal of a fifth-round draft pick if ever there was one. The Iowa product flashed some receiving skills late in 2017 and has thoroughly dominated defenses in 2018 with the greatest single-season ever by a San Francisco tight end. All signs point to this being the first of many, many Pro Bowls for the second-year man, and if Niner fans have their way, Kittle will be a focal point of this offense for the next decade.

Joe Staley (Six prior Pro Bowl selections)

The skinny: Just call him “The Constant.” Through the many ups, downs, twists and turns the 49ers have experienced throughout Joe’s 12-year tenure with the franchise, Staley has simply been a beast.

The 34-year-old has shown few signs of wear and tear, as he’s PFF’s fifth-ranked offensive tackle with a mark of 82.5.

While detractors could make the argument that Staley would be headed to Orlando in part because of his reputation, the 34-year-old has been a vital cog in an offensive line that has assisted undrafted second-year back Matt Breida to 5.6 yards per carry.

Signature performance: In Nick Mullens’ professional debut on Thursday Night Football against the Raiders in Week 9, the San Francisco offensive line was charged with the task of keeping the inexperienced signal-caller upright. Staley and company did exactly that, not permitting a sack on the night, giving Mullens plenty of space to step into his throws and allowing him to throw for 262 yards and three scores.

Long-term prospects: Staley has just one year remaining on his contract, so 49er Faithful can expect at least one more great season from the reliable mauler. If Staley’s health holds up and he continues to perform, perhaps the San Francisco brass can coax him into one final short-term contract. But even if he decides to hang ‘em up after next year, he will undoubtedly go down as one of the best offensive linemen in 49er history and should have a ticket to Cooperstown.

Mike McGlinchey (No prior Pro Bowl selections)

The skinny: The “younger brother of Joe Staley,” McGlinchey has lived up to the lofty expectations that come with being a top-10 overall pick in the draft and then some, as he’s PFF’s fifth-ranked offensive tackle in run-blocking and has performed better than expected in pass protection.

McGlinchey, who played left tackle in college, is likely to shift back over to his natural position whenever Staley calls it a career, but for now, San Francisco will enjoy having arguably the best offensive tackle combination in football, and McGlinchey has been instrumental in springing running backs for big gainers (San Francisco has 53 rushes of 10-plus yards, which is fourth-most in the NFL).

Signature performance: McGlinchey’s worth was on full display in his second pro game when Matt Breida exploded for 138 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries. McGlinchey’s dominant run-blocking made it possible for the undersized running back to get outside and do serious damage in the victory.

Long-term prospects: Along with Kittle, McGlinchey looks like one of the elite draft picks of the Lynch-Shanahan era. To be a successful NFL franchise, you need to knock it out of the park with your early-round picks, and San Francisco has seemingly done just that with McGlinchey. He’s just 13 games into his NFL career, but there’s no reason to believe the 23-year-old won’t continue to flourish into the one of the league’s elite offensive tackles.

Kyle Juszczyk (Two prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 28 receptions, 306 yards, 1 TD

The skinny: In a day an age when his position has been largely phased out across the league, Kyle Juszczyk is a throwback battering ram who shows that fullbacks can still make an impact when used correctly.

Though he doesn’t have a lot of competition (only five fullbacks have played enough snaps to qualify for PFF’s rankings, and only two of those reside in the NFC), Juice is far and away the league’s premier player at his position.

His run-blocking has once again been exceptional (75.4 PFF grade), and he’s a reliable weapon in the passing game, despite not getting a ton of targets.

Signature performance: Juice posted season highs in receptions (six) and yards (75) while picking up 12 yards on his lone carry against the Cardinals in Week 5. Thanks in part to Juszczyk, Matt Breida racked up 56 yards on eight carries in the same game.

Long-term prospects: The 27-year-old is under contract with San Francisco for another two seasons and is primed to make $9.25 million total over that time span. That may appear a bit pricey for a fullback at first glance, but Juszczyk is the best at his position in the NFL, and it will be money well spent so long as Shanahan continues to dial up plays that take advantage of the Harvard product’s excellent run-blocking and versatility.

Richard Sherman (Four prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 29 tackles, four passes defensed, one fumble recovery

The skinny: It didn’t take long for Sherm to alleviate any concerns about his Achilles injury from the previous season. Seeing 49er Faithful’s former public enemy No. 1 don the red and gold took a moment to get used to, but he quickly won over the fans by routinely shutting down opposing wideouts and looking very much like the Sherman of old.

As was the case during his days in Seattle, Sherman is rarely targeted, as opposing offenses fear his ball-hawking skills and would rather pick on the rest of San Francisco’s underachieving secondary. His weekly blanket coverage essentially takes an entire chunk of the field away from opposing signal-callers.

Signature performance: Even on a night when Aaron Rodgers toasted the 49ers by going 25-for-46 for 425 yards and a pair of scores, he still wanted nothing to do with Sherman, who gave up nothing against one of the all-time greats.

Long-term prospects: Sherm signed a three-year, $27.15 million contract last season, but only $3 million came guaranteed, so the Niners still hold all the cards in what is an extremely team-friendly deal. Even so, Sherman will likely finish out his contract if he continues to play anywhere near as well as he has in 2018.

Father time is undefeated, and eventually Sherman may slip from the ranks of the truly elite corners in the NFL, but even if that happens sooner rather than later, he will still have an invaluable role with the 49ers due to his ability to read offenses and call out plays before they happen.

DeForest Buckner (No prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key Stats: 49 tackles, nine sacks, two passes defensed

The skinny: DeForest Buckner just keeps getting better. The third-year defensive tackle has already posted a career-high nine sacks along with 49 tackles and has consistently provided a push up the middle.

That DeFo has accomplished what he has this season while receiving little help from his linemates – other than Ronald Blair, who has come on lately and is up to 5.5 sacks — makes his likely double-digit sack total even more impressive. Just imagine what he could do if San Francisco addresses its lack of outside pass-rushers through the draft, which would presumably result in fewer double-teams for the first-time Pro Bowler.

Signature performance: DeFo exploded out of the starting blocks in Week 1 against the Vikings, posting 2.5 sacks and seven tackles. Since Buckner somewhat surprisingly only notched three sacks the season prior — despite racking up a league-high 19 quarterback hits — it was an early encouraging sign that Buckner’s sack totals would spike in 2018. Indeed, they have.

Long-term prospects: One of the lone bright spots on San Francisco’s defense, the 2016 first-rounder should be a fixture on San Francisco’s defensive line for years to come. With a defensive front that struggles to put heat on the quarterback, it’s scary to think where the unit might be without DeFo, and since elite pass-rushers rarely hit the open market in today’s NFL, keeping the 24-year-old bull-rusher in red and gold for many years to come should be a priority for San Francisco’s front office.

Robbie Gould (one prior Pro Bowl selection)

Key stats: Converted 25 of 26 field goals.

The skinny: Gould has been a model of consistency since signing with the 49ers prior to the start of last season, as he’s made 64 of 67 field goals in that time. He may very well be kicking better than he ever has in his potential Hall of Fame career.

Signature performance: Gould booted all three of his field goals and all three of his extra points between the uprights in Week 2 against the Lions. The Niners needed all six of those kicks in a narrow 30-27 victory.

Long-term prospects: Gould is 36 years old, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down since coming to San Francisco. He’s an impending free agent, but the Niners and Gould could easily come to an agreement to keep him by the bay for a few more seasons.

Mark Nzeocha (zero prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 18 tackles

The skinny: With fans from Germany stuffing the ballot box, Nzeocha’s entire native country seemingly has his back, and he could make it to Orlando as the special teamer. While there are special teamers with more tackles than the Wyoming product and he’s certainly benefiting from Germany’s support, it’s easy to feel good for a guy like Nzeocha, who entered the league as an unheralded linebacker.

Playing time has never come easy for the Dallas Cowboys’ 2015 seventh-round selection, but he’s persevered, has seen a small amount of playing time at linebacker for the 49ers while suiting up for all 13 games this season (151 snaps) and could be on his way to Orlando.

Signature performance: Nzeocha notched a season-high four tackles in a Week 10 tilt against the Giants.

Long-term prospects: Nzeocha signed a one-year deal with San Francisco in the offseason and is a candidate to return to the red and gold next season as a solid backup linebacker and strong special teams player.

Matt Breida (Zero prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 132 carries, 744 rushing yards, 5.6 YPC, 21 receptions, 209 receiving yards, 5 total TDs

The skinny: Breida looked well on his way to Orlando a few games into the campaign, but nagging injuries combined with his small frame have combined to limit his workload. Still, he’s one of the breakout stars on the 49ers, and there’s something to be said for someone who seizes an opportunity when it’s presented, as Breida has done in his two years with the red and gold after going undrafted in 2017.

He may not have the requisite yards to crack the Pro Bowl roster, but his ridiculous 5.6 yards per carry simply cannot be ignored.

Signature performance: If there was any question about who would be the feature back in the wake of Jerick McKinnon’s injury, Breida answered it in Week 2 against the Lions when he exploded for 138 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries. Breida, who added 21 yards on three receptions, allowed San Francisco to control the game flow, despite a late rally by the Detroit.

Long-term prospects: San Francisco will likely want to keep Breida around for the foreseeable future, especially considering that he’s signed for just $645K in 2019 before he’s slated to become a restricted free agent in 2020. His touches may be scaled back a bit next season with the impeding return of McKinnon, but Breida is certain to see a healthy helping of snaps, and he’s a big-play threat every time he touches the ball.

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