49ers’ Mid-season Defensive Grades

As the San Francisco 49ers (4-3) enjoy their much needed bye week, it will be a time in which they can heal their wounds. A team that has only won four of their first seven games, will now get some healthy players back in the fold on the defensive side of the ball. From Pro Bowl ILB Patrick Willis to first-round pick (No. 30) DB Jimmie Ward, the bye week could not have come at a better time as the 49ers try to regain their mid-season form. And while the 49ers are not playing this week, we thought it would be a good idea to reflect on their individual performances while giving them a grade. So without further ado, our defensive grades are:

DE Justin Smith

Analysis: The player known as Cowboy continues to be the rock along the defensive line. A player who got off to a fast start with 3.0 sacks in his first two games, Smith has not recorded a sack since. And while a 3-4 defensive end is not responsible for generating sack numbers as they often hold the point of attack while maintaing gap integrity, Cowboy has somehow got the job done through brute force and old-man strength. Ranked No. 1 by Pro Football Focus for 3-4 DE’s against the run, it’s no wonder Smith gets the highest grade from me.

Grade: A

DE Ray McDonald

Analysis: How McDonald blocks out off-field distractions while not hindering his on-field performance is beyond me. A very stout player against the run it has been McDonald’s inability to rush the passer that continues to be his weakness. However, he hasn’t been horrible in that department as he’s tied for 3rd for all 3-4 DE’s with 15 quarterback hurries. If only McDonald can turn some of those hurries into hits and sacks.

Grade: B

NT Ian Williams

Analysis: The clog in the middle, Williams picked up right where he left off last season before a fractured left fibula ended his season. A smaller nose-tackle that plays with good pad-level, it’s no wonder Williams ranks No. 8 by Pro Football Focus for all nose tackles/defensive tackles.

Grade: A


OLB Ahmad Brooks

Analysis: How many times have we watched a 49ers game and hear the referee say, “Illegal hands to the face on No. 55?” Too often. However, penalties aren’t the only thing that’s holding Brooks back this season as his lack of a pass-rush have been inconsistent at best. A player that had just one sack through the first five games before recording multiple sacks in Week 6, Brooks will need to do a better job if he hopes to remain on the field on passing downs as rookie fifth-round pick (No. 150) OLB Aaron Lynch has done a nice job of late. Brooks who ranks second to last (No. 48) among all 3-4 OLBs with a -8.0 grade will need to step up his game, the second half of the season.

Grade: C

OLB Dan Skuta

Analysis: Skuta continues to be a nice surprise as he fills in for OLB Aldon Smith. Primarily used as a special-teams player, Skuta was inserted in the starting lineup and has done a nice job in that role. Whether generating pressure on the quarterback or setting the edge, Skuta continues to be a reliable starter capable of getting the job done when called upon.

Grade: B

Getty Images

Getty Images

OLB Aaron Lynch

Analysis: To think what the pass-rush may look like on the outside when Aldon comes back is scary. Just imagine two athletic freaks breathing down the quarterback’s neck while creating havoc in the backfield is a scenario even DC Vic Fangio will love. Up to this point, Lynch has lived up to his billing as a first-round talent that saw his draft stock fall due to off-field issues. He has a blocked punt, recorded his first NFL sack last week and has 11 quarterback hurries while only playing 192 snaps. A kid that is getting better with each snap played, it’s no wonder Pro Football Focus has this high-flying rookie ranked No. 15 for all 3-4 OLB’s.

Grade: B

ILB Patrick Willis

Analysis: Willis continues to be the heart and soul of the defense. However, the absence of ILB NaVorro Bowman is really putting more pressure on him as he plays the Mike role. A position that covers the strong side over the tight-end, Willis has done a nice job as he fills in for his teammate. However, he’s not having his best season and as a result ranks No. 10 by Pro Football Focus for all ILBs.

Grade: B

ILB Michael Wilhoite 

Analysis: Wilhoite is doing a decent job but is missing more than his fair share of tackles in open space. A player that does not possess the instincts or ability to track down ball-carriers behind the line of scrimmage, Wilhoite has struggled playing the Jack role. A position that requires the linebacker to free up his Mike teammate, Wilhoite is doing the best job he can and will go back to his special-teams role once Bowman comes back in a few weeks.

Grade: C

CB Perrish Cox

Analysis: The best ballhawking cornerback on the team, Cox continues to prove his worth on a one-year prove it deal. Whether playing the ball or staying stride-for-stride with receivers, Cox is the unquestioned most reliable cornerback on the 49ers roster. Through seven games, Cox ranks higher than Seahawks CB Richard Sherman in pass-coverage while also ranking as the 7th best cornerback according to Pro Football Focus.

Grade: A 

CB Chris Culliver/CB Tramaine Brock

Analysis: I’m not sure that Culliver is fully recovered from his torn ACL. He doesn’t seem like he has the same quickness, agility, and explosiveness that once made him a top young cornerback in the NFL. From giving up long first-downs to not being able to get his hands on balls, Culliver doesn’t look the same at the midway point. And while his durability continues to be an issue as he was held out against the Broncos with a hamstring injury, it remains to be seen how much the 49ers can count on him moving forward as he currently ranks No. 45 by Pro Football Focus. To his credit he does have a fumble recovery for a touchdown to score the 49ers first touchdown of 2014.

As for T-Brock, what can I say? The guy hasn’t done much as he continues to recover from turf toe. An injury that can linger well into the season, T-Brock did come back against the Broncos only to get toasted for big gains and touchdowns.

Grade: D


DB Jimmie Ward

Analysis: While many Forever Faithful have started to label Ward a bust, I would be quick to argue that assessment. For one, Ward has improved every game from the slot while providing a special-teams presence as the primary gunner. A role that takes toughness to master, Ward has done a tremendous job in getting down field thus far. But it’s the slot role that will ultimately determine Ward’s success or failure. In his last two games, Ward has graded positively with 0.3 grade by Pro Football Focus. And despite that grade not being eye-popping the fact that Ward is showing signs of improvement is encouraging. A player that I believe can be a solid starter, look for Ward to have a breakout second-half to the season.

Grade: C

FS Eric Reid

Analysis: Ranked No. 29 by Pro Football Focus among all safeties, Reid is not having the Pro Bowl rookie season he experienced last year. Through seven games he has one interception while giving up three touchdowns. To make matters worse he allows quarterbacks to hold a rating of 93.2. If the 49ers want to create turnovers it will need to start with their playmaking free-safety as he showed he can be a true ballhawk when on his A-game.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Grade: C

SS Antoine Bethea

Analysis: Bethea has been a pleasant surprise since replacing SS Donte Whitner. From forcing fumbles to snaring interceptions, Bethea continues to look the part of a Pro Bowl strong safety. A knack for the big play, Bethea also provides much needed run support when called upon in the box. A true veteran leader with the savvy to match, it’s no wonder Bethea currently ranks No. 8 among all safeties according to Pro Football Focus.

Grade: A

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.