Five players the Niners can least afford to lose

In the wake of Aldon Smith’s stabbing – and the frightening possibility they might have lost him, it appears they didn’t – let’s rank the players the 49ers can least afford to lose for next season’s Super Bowl run.

This list is highly subjective. I’m open to your ideas. It’s hard to quantify value.

  1. Aldon Smith –I recently ranked him as the Niners’ third-best player behind Justin Smith and Patrick Willis, but now I’m ranking him as the 2012 preseason team MVP, or the player the Niners can least afford to lose. Why? Because he has the most violent impact on the other team’s quarterback. Last season the 22-year-old played 506 snaps – about half of the Niners’ total defensive snaps – and still ranked second out of all outside linebackers in the NFL in sacks (14), fifth in QB hits (13), and seventh in QB hurries (36). Next season he’s going to start and rush the quarterback almost every defensive snap. He’s going to rush from the right and the left side, and he’s going to rush from three different positions – outside linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle. Expect to see quarterbacks routinely pointing at Aldon Smith before plays just to let everyone else on offense know where he is. He has the potential to get 20 sacks next season. If he does, the Niners have the potential to be one of the greatest defenses of all time. Without him, the Niners pass rush becomes ordinary or worse because there isn’t an experienced pass rusher backing up Aldon Smith on the roster.
  2. Justin Smith – Arguably the best defensive player in the NFL last season, the 32-year defensive tackle definitely helped Aldon Smith break the Niners’ rookie sack record by drawing so many double teams. Justin Smith was also one of the best players against the run in the NFL last season. He can do it all, but it’s hard to imagine him getting any better next season –he turns 33 on September 30. If he misses time, the Niners still have another Pro-Bowl-caliber defensive tackle – Ray McDonald – and three backups they like very much – Ricky Jean Francios, Will Tukuafu and Demcarcus Dobbs.
  3. Alex Smith – If they lose this guy, the Niners have a big problem because no other quarterback on the roster is proven in the NFL. He wasn’t a Pro Bowler last season, but he showed some flashes of excellence, particularly against the Saints in the playoffs. If he can play that well for most of the season, he could win the Super Bowl and jump to No. 1 on this list.
  4. Vernon Davis – Currently the best player on the offense, he had somewhat of a down season statistically by his standards in 2011 – 792 yards and 6 TDs – but he exploded in his two playoff games – 292 yards and 4 TDs. If he can keep that type of production up next season, the Niners offense should be quite good. If they lose him, they still have other weapons on offense, just no one as good as Davis.
  5. Patrick Willis – The best middle linebacker in football, maybe ever. Arguably the best player on the Niners right now. He can stop inside runs and outside runs, he can blitz and he can cover tight ends. He may be the best linebacker at pass coverage in the league. He has a good chance to lead the team in tackles and interceptions next season. As great as he is, the Niners could survive without him, because their other starting inside linebacker – NaVorro Bowman, is almost as good as Willis, and the backup – Larry Grant – is good enough to start on most teams. Willis missed four games last season and the Niners went 3-1 without him.

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