This is the fourth edition of my series ranking the Niners 25 best players. To read the previous edition, click here.
16. Chris Culliver, CB – Targeted 50 times in 2011 and allowed just 4.9 yards per pass, fourth best of all cornerbacks in the NFL (Carlos Rogers allowed 6.5 yards per pass – 19th best). Culliver played left cornerback in the Niners nickel defense, which is a tougher job than right corner (Tarell Brown’s spot) because the left corner receives less safety help over the top.
17. Isaac Sopoaga, NT – Quickly established himself as one of the premier nose tackles in 2011 – his first season playing the position full-time. Not a penetrator or sack-master, but an immovable force in the middle of the defensive line who makes it nearly impossible for opposing teams to run up the middle.
18. Mike Iupati, LG – A Pro Bowl alternate in 2011. One of the best run-blocking guards in the NFL. Developing as a pass protector. Turned 25 years old in May. Potential to jump into the top 15 next season.
19. Tarell Brown, CB – The Niners third-best cornerback, Pro Football Focus ranked him the 39th best CB out of 109 in the last season. Had a very good season, defending 15 passes, picking off four in the regular season and one in the playoffs – an incredible leaping interception against the Saints. Got better as the season went on. Had a monster minicamp, and seems to still be improving. Will give a full game’s salary to one of his three charities if he isn’t selected to the Pro Bowl next season, he tweeted. Also intends to lead the league in the interceptions in 2012, according to his twitter. The 27-year old cornerback certainly has the talent to achieve both goals.
20. Brian Jennings, LS – Earned his second Pro Bowl selection last season. Arguably the best long snapper in the NFL, and the longest tenured player on the 49ers. Long snappers are important. The Niners special teams could not have been as great as it was without Jennings’ consistent excellence. The Browns lost two games last season because their long snapper, Ryan Pontbriand, botched snaps on field goals that could have put the Browns ahead late in games against the Rams and Bengals. The Browns cut Pontbriand on November 29th.