I am aware that the Associated Press only names All-Pro teams for the entire league, but we’re going to pretend that each division gets their own squad. Here’s my prediction for what the NFC West All-Pro team would look like by the end of the upcoming season:
Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick (SFO)
Most people would go with reigning Super Bowl champ Russell Wilson in this slot, but I’m picking his rival instead. Don’t get me wrong, I love Wilson and think his skills are somehow still a bit underrated. I just think Kaepernick is going to have a MONSTER 2014 season. Look, even some of the all-time great quarterbacks struggled in their second seasons. But if over 3,000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing to go along with 12 wins is considered a struggle, then sign me up for the comeback season. Kaepernick had practically no help from his receivers last year aside from Anquan Boldin, but now his favorite target Michael Crabtree is back from injury and the team traded for Stevie Johnson. With a loaded offensive line and great running backs as well, I’m making the bold call that Kaepernick will be an All-Pro candidate for the AP list at the end of the season.
Running Back: Marshawn Lynch (SEA)
“Beast Mode” would have made this hypothetical team in each of the past three seasons, and there is no reason he can’t make it four years in a row. Yes, his body has taken a beating and he has carried the ball more than any back in the league since he became the starter in Seattle. But you have to remember that he pretty much took a vacation in the middle of his career and that he is still only 28 years old. Also, he’s just a flat out animal. The Seahawks are successful when they run their offense through Lynch, and that plan definitely ain’t broke so they definitely won’t fix it. Is a decline possible this year? Sure. Will Zac Stacy supplant Lynch as the best running back in the division? It could happen. But until we know the answers to those questions for sure, I’m never picking against Marshawn Lynch.
Fullback: Bruce Miller (SFO)
The fullback is a dying position, but it lives on through guys like Bruce Miller. He might have missed the tail end of the 2013 season due to injury, but all reports say he is ready to go for 2014. He is an important piece in the 49ers offense, as he is a great run blocker and caught 25 passes before his injury last year.
You already read how I feel about Colin Kaepernick for 2014 (if you skipped that part, I’m all in on him). So, it should not be a surprise that I think Crabtree will have a huge year as well. His chemistry with Kaepernick is unparalleled to any other receiver on the team, and now he is healthy and better than ever. Plus, he is entering a contract year and we know how much that can motivate a player, especially a wide receiver. Crabtree caught 85 balls for over 1,100 yards in his first season with Kaepernick, and I think he’ll surpass both of those totals in 2014.
As for Fitzgerald, someone who just goes by the stats would tell you that his play has declined over the past few years. But he is still the same Larry, even if he is not making the same mind-boggling catches like he was when Kurt Warner was behind center. He is among the best leaders in the league and can still change a game at any moment. Defenses always know where Fitzgerald is on the field, and he impacts the plays where he doesn’t even touch the ball.
Tight End: Vernon Davis (SFO)
The NFC West might be the best division in the NFL, but it is among the worst when it comes to tight ends. Davis is one of the best at his position, but this pick feels like it was made using the process of elimination. He caught 13 touchdowns in 2013, good enough for third in the league among pass catchers. But he only caught 52 passes and was often visibly on a different page than Kaepernick. With Crabtree and Stevie Johnson now active on the roster, there is a good chance Davis will have a diminished role in the offense. Considering he is currently holding out for a new contract, that is probably not what he wants to hear. But he can take consolation in the fact that he is the best tight end in his division.
Tackle: Joe Staley (SFO), Russell Okung (SEA)
These two guys were once named the starters of the NFC Pro Bowl team together, so it’s fitting that they are connected once again. Staley is a stud at left tackle for the 49ers, and there is no one better at run blocking than him in the entire league.
Okung is more than solid if healthy, but that is a pretty big if. His contract situation is in doubt, so maybe that will provide him with a needed boost to keep him on the field for 16 games.
Guard: Mike Iupati (SFO), Greg Robinson (STL)
Iupati is the best guard in the league, plain and simple. He does it all, and the 49ers are not the same team without him.
Robinson, the second overall pick, is naturally a tackle and has struggled adapting to his new position. But he should learn quickly, and he will begin mauling defensive lineman as soon as he does.
Center: Max Unger (SEA)
Defensive End: Robert Quinn (STL), Calais Campbell (ARI)
Quinn has been an impact player ever since he stepped onto a NFL field, but he showed the world how good he can be in 2013. He broke out for 19 sacks and 7 forced fumbles, finishing behind only Robert Mathis in both categories. Considering he is only 24 years old and plays on one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, it is likely that he will repeat this performance in 2014. He is one of the top candidates to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Being that Campbell is 6’8” and six years into his NFL career, it is surprising that he flies under the radar. But he is one of the best in the league at his position, especially among 3-4 ends. He set a career high with nine sacks last season, constantly disrupted opposing running games, and made it impossible for quarterbacks to throw over him. Hopefully he finally gets the recognition he deserves at the end of 2014.
Defensive Tackle: Justin Smith (SFO), Michael Brockers (STL)
Technically, Smith is a defensive end on the 49ers depth chart. But he moves around the line and has been voted to the actual All-Pro team as a tackle, so I think this decision is fair. He might be 34 years old and is not one of the flashier names on the loaded 49ers defense, but he is still a monster. He had 6.5 sacks last season, but he is the kind of player whose impact cannot be quantified.
Brockers does not get much attention since he plays inside of Robert Quinn and Chris Long, but he is a rising star in the NFL. Only 23 years old, he had 5.5 sacks last season as a 4-3 defensive tackle. The presence of rookie Aaron Donald on the line will only give Brockers more space to operate, so his numbers should improve in 2014. A trip to Honolulu is very likely in his near future.
Outside Linebacker: Ahmad Brooks (SFO), Aldon Smith (SFO)
Real teammates, now hypothetical teammates. Brooks and Smith are two of the best outside linebackers in the league, as they have each made an All-Pro team in the last two seasons. Brooks had his best season in 2013, recording 8.5 sacks and making clutch plays for his team all year long.
As for Smith, he had a tumultuous 2013. He was dismissed from the team for his off-field behavior and missed five games. Still, he managed to tie Brooks for the team lead in sacks in limited action. Yeah, he’s that good. He might not be a typical linebacker since he is strictly utilized as a pass rusher, but why drop someone into coverage when he can get to the quarterback on every play? If Smith can manage to stay out of trouble and play 16 games, then he is a good bet to lead the league in sacks.
Inside Linebacker: Patrick Willis (SFO), Bobby Wagner (SEA)
Patrick Willis has almost cemented his spot on the all-time All-Pro team, so a place on the 2014 NFC West version is nothing for him. I could get into detail about his skills and performance, but instead you can just visualize everything a middle linebacker is supposed to do. Eight years into his career, he is still the best at his craft.
The “Legion of Boom” secondary anchors the Seahawks defense, so Wagner does not get the credit he deserves. But he is as good as it gets when it comes to 4-3 middle linebackers, and he is still improving. Coverage is where Wagner separates himself from other linebackers, but he also managed to tally 5 sacks and 120 tackles in 2013. While Wagner holds his own defense together, he manages to tear opposing offenses apart.
Cornerback: Richard Sherman (SEA), Patrick Peterson (ARI)
Well, these selections could not have been easier. Although Darrelle Revis might disagree, it is commonly agreed that Sherman and Peterson are the best two cornerbacks in the league. Things might never get better for Sherman than they were in 2013, but he should come pretty close in 2014. It says something that he managed to lead the league with 8 interceptions when teams barely throw in his direction. On top of that, he is one of the best corners at defending against the run. But you already know how good Sherman is, since he keeps on telling us.
Peterson is already amongst the NFL elite, but 2014 might be the year when he reaches the top of his position’s pedestal. He is far and away the most talented cornerback, and he almost has the perfect technique to go along with it. No defender in the league has the ability to change a game like Peterson. I’m not saying he is Deion Sanders yet, but he is not as far off as you might think.
Safety: Earl Thomas (SEA), Kam Chancellor (SEA)
You had to see more “Legion of Boom” members coming. They have the skills, the hardware, and all of the swagger in the world. You can make the argument that Thomas was even more important to the team’s success than Sherman in 2013. He is a ball hawk when playing deep, but then he can move forward and play like the best linebacker on the field. He might not be physically big, but he plays like a giant.
Chancellor may be known for his big hits, but there is so much more to his game than that. Not only does he stop wide receivers from coming across the middle, but he can chase down runners and make unbelievable pass breakups as well. It’s just an added bonus he might be the most fun safety to watch in the entire league.
Kicker: Steven Hauschka
Punter: Andy Lee
Kick Returner: Percy Harvin
Special Teams: Justin Bethel