By Sam McPherson
Travel back in time five years if you can. The San Francisco 49ers posted a 13-3 record, and after a thrilling playoff 36-32 win at Candlestick Park over the New Orleans Saints, the 49ers hosted the NFC Championship Game as favorites over the New York Giants. San Francisco’s defense had given up just 14.3 points per game in the 2011 regular season, and the starting lineup featured four first-round draft picks and a few other diamonds in the rough plucked out of thin air. The average age of the starters on that stellar defense was 27.3 years, and the 49ers seemed set up for several seasons on defense.
Now, return to 2016 and look at the San Francisco defense: It’s giving up 31.3 points per game this year, and the only starter remaining from that 2011 squad is 32-year-old linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Everyone around him has disappeared in the last five years, as the injuries, retirements and seasons have taken their toll upon this once-proud unit. Fellow 2011 starting linebacker NaVorro Bowman went down with a season-ending injury after just four games this year, and now Brooks is the last man standing from that bygone era.
Defensive Line Deterioration
Defensive lineman Ray McDonald and Justin Smith combined for 13 sacks in 2011, and that kind of upfront push is a tremendous part of setting the tone for a good defense. The duo also joined forces to provide 97 tackles between them throughout the season, with unheralded nose tackles Ricky Jean-Francois (one start) and Isaac Sopoaga (15 starts) filling in the middle of the line. Smith was a former No. 1 pick—fourth overall in 2001—who came to San Francisco as a free agent, and McDonald was S.F. third-round pick in 2007. They were the anchors upfront from the 49ers defense.
After five Pro Bowl seasons in seven years with San Francisco, though, Smith retired after the 2014 season at age 36. As for McDonald, he ran himself out of the league after four off-the-field incidents with the police regarding domestic issues. The 49ers released him in December 2014, and he eventually signed with Chicago. But the Bears parted ways with him as well after another arrest, and McDonald hasn’t played in the NFL since the S.F. organization cut him. While there is hope for the future on the defensive line now with rookie DeForest Buckner (45 tackles, three sacks), the 49ers still need a partner to pair the 2016 first-round pick with on the line.
This was undoubtedly the strength of the 2011 defense: Bowman, Brooks and Patrick Willis were the key members of this unit. Add pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith, and it was the most fearsome group in the NFL five years ago. Bowman led the team with 143 tackles, and Smith had 14 sacks despite not starting. Willis contributed 97 tackles, while Brooks added 50 tackles and seven sacks. Smith and Willis were former first-round draft picks by the 49ers, while Bowman was a third-round find, and Brooks had been a third-round supplementary pick by Cincinnati in 2006. This group was the envy of every team in the league.
Willis surprisingly retired after the 2014 season, after making 950 tackles in eight seasons. Just 29 at the time, the 49ers haven’t been able to replace his unique talents. Smith, like McDonald, ran himself out of the league due to repeated off-the-field issues with the police, and he is currently under a year-long suspension from the league after signing with the Oakland Raiders in 2015. Bowman suffered his second major injury this season, and it’s unknown if he will be able to (or willing even) to return to play in 2017. Brooks has 3.5 sacks for this year’s defense, but he always was viewed as the beneficiary of the talent around him. Without Bowman, Smith and Willis to distract the offensive personnel, Brooks hasn’t been able to carry the linebacking corps on his own in 2016.
With 18 interceptions as a group in 2011, the San Francisco secondary was a very good one. Cornerbacks Tarell Brown (four INTs) and Carlos Rogers (six) took care of the wide receivers, while safeties Dashon Goldson (six) and Donte Whitner (two) covered the middle of the field. The four starters also combined for 55 passes defensed during the season, creating a lot of problems for opposing quarterbacks and receivers downfield. If the defensive line and the linebackers weren’t sacking the QB, these four 49ers in the secondary were making sure the passes downfield weren’t going very far.
Rogers and Whitner were former first-round picks, while Brown and Goldson were San Francisco’s homegrown products from later-round picks. Rogers left the team after the 2013 season before retiring after the 2014 campaign. Whitner also left after 2013 and started 30 games for Cleveland in 2014-2015 combined before finding a job in Washington this season. Brown followed Rogers to Oakland in 2014 before ending his career the following season after playing in a few games with New England. Goldon departed after the 2012 season, spending two years in Tampa Bay and one in Washington before signing with Atlanta for the 2016 season. Despite spending multiple first-round picks on secondary players in recent drafts, the 49ers just haven’t been able to field a comparable defensive backfield.