Former NFL scout Matt Williamson writes about the league from X's and O's and talent evaluation perspectives.
My assignment was to rank the top 10 defensive players in the Super Bowl. Not who will be the most valuable three years from now. The best players right now. Age doesn’t matter. Contract status doesn’t matter.
Who are Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, perhaps the greatest offensive minds in the NFL, most worried about? Which pass-rushers must be double teamed? Which cover men should be avoided? Based on my top 10, Reid has much more to worry about than Shanahan. Even the three players who just failed to make my top 10 are Niners.
1. Chris Jones, Chiefs, DL, (Round 2, 2016)
Battling a calf injury, Jones played only 42 percent of the snaps in Kansas City’s AFC Championship Game win, but he still made a massive impact. He showed great penetration skills in the run and pass games (as usual) against Tennessee. Despite missing three games with injuries in 2019, Jones had nine sacks. The Chiefs need a huge game from Jones to slow the 49ers' second-ranked rushing game (154.2 ypg.). Don't be surprised if he delivers.
2. Richard Sherman, 49ers, CB (Round 5, 2011)
Darrelle Revis, one of the greatest corners of all time, can say whatever he wants about Sherman. But the Niners' defender is truly a great player and possibly the league’s best cornerback since Revis. No, Sherman doesn’t exclusively cover No. 1 wideouts, but he excels in man coverage. And in San Francisco's system, zone coverage can quickly become man as the play develops. Sherman has racked up 35 interceptions in nine seasons -- three this season. There's a reason he is Pro Football Focus' top CB of the 2010s.
3. Nick Bosa, 49ers, DE, (Round 1, 2019)
Bosa may be even better than his big brother Joey, who has 40 sacks in four seasons with the Chargers. As a rookie, the No. 2 overall pick amassed 11.5 sacks, more than anyone else in this Super Bowl. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. Pass-rushers often take a few years to hit their stride, but Nick proved he was a star from the get-go. He's every bit the technician and athlete that Joey is. What if Nick hasn’t yet hit his stride and the best is yet to come? Yikes.
4. DeForest Buckner,49ers, DL (Round 1, 2016)
Buckner is perhaps the most unheralded superstar in this game. He is a gigantic part of the San Francisco D-line that includes three other first-round picks besides Buckner and Bosa: Solomon Thomas (3rd pick, 2017), Arik Armstead (17th pick, 2015) and Dee Ford (23rd pick, 2014). San Francisco must match the athleticism and elite playmaking ability of Patrick Mahomes. It has the tools to do it.
5. Tyrann Mathieu, Chiefs, S (Round 3, 2013)
Kansas City has gotten the LSU version of the Honey Badger, the guy who showed off ridiculous skills. Joining the Chiefs this season after a year with the Texans, Mathieu has been all over the field. He reminds me of former Steeler Troy Polamalu, who, by the way, is a Hall of Fame finalist. Mathieu gets perhaps the greatest challenge in the game: taking on Niners all-world tight end George Kittle.
6. Frank Clark, Chiefs, DE (Round 1, 2015)
The Chiefs invested draft capital (first-round pick in 2019, second-rounder in 2020) and cash (five-year, $105 million deal) to add Clark. He started slowly but has come on lately for the Chiefs, who transitioned this season to more of a 4-3 front. Clark’s four postseason sacks lead all players in the playoffs. Expect the 49ers to roll their protections in Clark’s direction when they throw.
7. Fred Warner, 49ers, LB (Round 3, 2018)
Warner isn’t mentioned nearly enough among the NFL's great, young linebackers. Although he's only 23, he's San Francisco’s quarterback of the defense. He is much more than just the guy who gets everyone lined up correctly, though. Warner covers a ton of ground against the run and pass. He’s a star.
8. Dee Ford, 49ers, DE (Round 1, 2014)
Because of injuries, Ford sometimes only plays on passing downs. But the 49ers must be thrilled that they only gave up draft pick to the Chiefs to acquire Pro Football Focus' top 2018 pass-rusher. He brings more pure speed and finesse off the edge than the other great 49er defensive linemen.
9. Arik Armstead, 49ers, DL (Round 1, 2015)
Rounding out this list are two first-round picks that the current 49ers staff inherited. Both were considered disappointments considering their draft status but have been outstanding this season. Armstead is somewhat of a clone of his college teammate, Buckner, and has immense value lining up all over the line of scrimmage. Only Bosa had more sacks this season from the Super Bowl teams than Armstead (10).
10. Jimmie Ward, 49ers, S (Round 1, 2014)
Ward began his career slowly, playing cornerback as well as safety. He's mostly used as a single-high center fielder in San Francisco’s Cover 3 scheme (like Earl Thomas was in Seattle). Ward also shows the versatility to play some man coverage and come down in the box at times as well. He's thriving.
HONORABLE MENTION: Kwon Alexander (49ers linebacker), Jaquiski Tartt (49ers safety), K’Waun Williams (49ers cornerback)
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