Matt Barrows posted the MVP selections from six reporters (Eric Branch, Cam Inman, Tim Kawakami, Matt Maiocco, Bill Williamson, and Barrows himself) and one announcer (Ted Robinson) who cover the San Francisco 49ers on the road. Here’s who they went with:

  • NaVorro Bowman 49ersBranch: NaVorro Bowman
  • Inman: Justin Smith
  • Kawakami: NaVorro Bowman
  • Maiocco: NaVorro Bowman
  • Robinson: Frank Gore
  • Williamson: NaVorro Bowman
  • Barrows: Anquan Boldin

Bowman was the majority’s choice, and it’s easy to see why. He’s an All-Pro, his middle linebacking partner Patrick Willis missed time and has never quite looked like himself this season, and Bowman came through when the 49ers absolutely needed a win with a fantastic performance in St. Louis.

Three games still remain, and no one asked for my opinion because I don’t cover the team on the road (among other reasons), but Bowman would not be my choice. In fact, I’d list Bowman fourth behind these three.

Donte Whitner 49ers3. Donte Whitner

The whole name-change thing served as an amusing footnote, but Whitner was seriously one of the best players on the team this year. In addition to being one of the NFL’s last true intimidators at the strong safety position, Whitner was outstanding in coverage this year. According to Pro Football Focus, Whitner allowed 20 receptions on 39 targets for 210 yards. He allowed only one touchdown all year while collecting two interceptions and defensing six passes. Quarterbacks had a rating of just 54.4 when going Whitner’s way, compared to 130.6 last season.

The 49ers’ pass coverage didn’t miss a beat in 2013, even though they lost two of their top five defensive backs from last season (Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver) and Tarell Brown hasn’t played since the Washington game.

Whitner was consistent as a run defender as well, and he had his best season as a 49er while integrating a rookie safety. In actuality Whitner was more like a mentor, pushing Eric Reid to come work out at 6:30 every morning at the facility from the moment the two first arrived in Santa Clara. And this doesn’t matter in terms of production, but Whitner graciously answered question after question about Reid’s progression and standout plays — even though Whitner was quietly a better and more durable player than Reid throughout the season.

Joe Staley 49ers2. Joe Staley

We’re getting to the point where Staley might have to be considered the best 49ers offensive lineman of all time. However, that’s a subject for another post. This year, Staley was the best and most consistent player on an offense that struggled at times. Those struggles were rarely the fault of Staley, who PFF has ranked as the No. 4 tackle in the NFL (and the scores are really too close to call a true winner, especially when considering how difficult it is to judge line play).

Staley has perhaps the most important job on the team: keep Colin Kaepernick healthy while consistently facing the best pass rushers the opposition has to offer. He set the tone in Week 1 when he came to his quarterback’s defense against Clay Matthews, and while mic’d up famously told Kaepernick that, “We’re setting a precedent. No one is (expletive) hitting you late.” Staley did better than that, going seven consecutive games without allowing a sack or hit on Kaepernick. That streak broke when he allowed one sack in the win over Seattle, a game no one thought Staley would be able to play after sustaining a sprained MCL the week before.

Justin Smith 49ers1. Justin Smith

I’ve got to agree with Inman on this one. The 49ers are led by their defense, and the only reason why Bowman gets to fly around and make all those tackles is because Smith does the grunt work up front. Smith still has the strength to grab opposing players and throw them backwards as if their bodies are lifeless sacks of flour, but the stats aren’t quite there — 4.5 sacks, 42 tackles, one forced fumble.

But Smith (who leads the team in QB hits and hurries) has always been there, and without him the 2013 defensive line would’ve been a disaster. Just consider what has gone on around him.

  • Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois signed elsewhere before the season
  • Ian Williams went on IR after breaking his ankle in Week 2
  • Aldon Smith missed five games (six if you count the Panthers game)
  • Ray McDonald hasn’t been himself since partially tearing his biceps in Week 5

We saw last year what the 49ers defense looks like without a healthy Smith. With all the injuries and turmoil on the defensive line, the 49ers are still the NFL’s fourth best team in yards allowed while giving up the third-fewest points. It’s been a team effort for the 49ers defense, but the entire operation starts with Smith — who happens to be that unit’s oldest player at 34.