It seems like the bulk of the coverage about the 49ers up to this point has centered on who isn’t on the field (I’m guilty of this as well). But we’re almost halfway through the season, and the bye week seems like a good “unofficial halfway mark” where we can make judgments about the players who’ve either propelled the 49ers to a 4-3 mark or kept them from being 5-2 or 6-1, depending on your point of view.
So here’s the first of a two-part series on the biggest surprises so far. We’ll start with the pleasant surprises.
1. Perrish Cox
Anyone who goes from two times released the year before to the best cornerback on the team has to head this list. It wasn’t clear whether Cox would even make the team out of camp, and a big reason why he did probably had to do with his ability to play in the slot in case Jimmie Ward wasn’t up to the task. But he’s been asked to play on the outside since the injury to Tramaine Brock in Week 1, and so far that’s worked out really well for Cox (who considered retirement a year ago) and the 49ers.
- Noteworthy stats: three interceptions, 53.4 QB rating against
- PFF score: 6.4 (10th overall among cornerbacks)
2. Ian Williams
Williams was a starter at the beginning of the 2013 season who lost his job when J.R. Sweezy pulled off the punk move of all punk moves and shattered the nose tackle’s left fibula and damaged ankle ligaments with a chop block. The 49ers didn’t miss a beat with Glenn Dorsey, but Williams underwent four (FOUR!) leg surgeries and didn’t practice again until Aug. 13. With Dorsey now the one who’s on the mend, Williams has shown how he won the starting job in the first place a year ago.
- Noteworthy stats: one sack, no penalties, 16 tackles, six QB hurries
- PFF Score: 11.2 (ninth overall among DTs/NTs)
3. Aaron Lynch
Snap counts by game: 21, 16, 12, 25, 26, 48, 44. Translation: Corey Lemonier may get dealt this week before the deadline. Lynch only has one sack so far, but he’s been a highlight machine compared to what he was expected to do after a rocky college career led to him getting drafted in the fifth round. He blocked a punt. He made a crazy-good play to tackle Darren Sproles for a loss near the end of the 49ers’ win over the Eagles. He has a knack for pressuring quarterbacks at just the right times. The ceiling for this kid is really, really high (and we haven’t even seen him bookended with Aldon Smith yet).
- Noteworthy stats: three quarterback hits, 11 quarterback hurries, two pass breakups
- PFF Score: 4.8 (18th overall among 3-4 outside linebackers)
4. Daniel Kilgore
His season might be over, but that’s not a reason to punish a steady performer on an offensive line that hasn’t been all that stable through the first seven games. Kilgore drew rave reviews from Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman for how he handled Dontari Poe, and allowed the fewest QB pressures of the team’s regular starters this season.
- Noteworthy stats: one penalty (declined), no sacks, no quarterback hits, six quarterback hurries
- PFF Score: 4.6 (10th overall among centers)
5. Antoine Bethea
Although Bethea was one of the top free agent safeties available, his signing didn’t make waves. He was the “safe” choice — a durable, dependable veteran who’d keep the coverage mistakes and penalties to a minimum. He was the anti-Hitner. Then he started the season with a brutal dismantling of Dez Bryant’s spine, and we all realized that Bethea the 49er might not be the same as Bethea the Colt.
- Noteworthy stats: one sack, one interception, three pass breakups, one forced fumble, no penalties
- PFF Score: 6.1 (eighth overall among safeties)
6. Stevie Lloyd
You might think, “Hey dips—, there’s no players on the team named Stevie Lloyd.” And you’d be right, but if you combine Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd (343 total snaps — 93 fewer than Anquan Boldin and 18 below Michael Crabtree’s total), you get the best third wide receiver in the NFL. And that’s what it appears the 49ers have done in their first seven games, as they’ve used Johnson as a possession receiver who kills it on third down and Lloyd as the deep threat who stretches the field.
- Noteworthy stats: 35 receptions, 567 yards and four touchdowns
- PFF Scores: 7.8 for Johnson (sixth overall among wideouts), 1.4 for Lloyd (29th overall) … both are ranked higher than Boldin (0.2) and Crabtree (-4.4)