The emergence of the San Francisco 49ers as the class of the NFC West came mostly through a hard-nosed defense that really gave teams something to think about when they came to play them. There are a lot of players responsible for that defensive identity, particularly defensive end Justin Smith and middle linebacker Patrick Willis and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Also crucial were the development of some youngsters, two of whom were named among the top ten in Daniel Jeremiah's list on NFL.com of the ten best NFL players under the age of 25.
The first was 23 year old NaVorro Bowman, who actually piled up more tackles than Willis and could be on his way to becoming the best all-around defender on the 49ers.
Playing linebacker for the 49ers and finding a way to escape the shadow of Patrick Willis is not an easy task. Bowman was able to do just that with a monstrous sophomore season in San Francisco. He led the team with 143 tackles and also chipped in with two sacks. He is a prototype linebacker. He can run sideline to sideline, he's an explosive tackler, he can cover and he can blitz. He checks every box on a coach's LB wish list.
The second is the 22 year old rookie Aldon Smith, who became a vital pass rusher along the line that the 49ers seemed to lack in previous seasons.
Smith is the third pass rusher to make this list. He recorded 14 sacks during his rookie year despite not starting a single game. He has an outstanding feel for rushing the passer. He is sudden off the snap and he has a wide variety of hand moves to defeat offensive tackles. He needs to improve his play against the run, but he's already established himself as one of the league's elite pass-rushers.
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