With five games remaining and the 49ers still hopeful for a playoff berth, several players already have proven their worth. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, for example, likely has earned himself a franchise tag. Vernon Davis is having the best season of his career and should - if the voters know what they're doing -- be receiving a Pro Bowl invite later this month. Michael Crabtree, had he played a full season, might have been in the conversation for rookie of the year. Others, however, are still establishing their worth and have five games to really make their pitch.
Alex Smith. The 49ers quarterback really holds the fate of the team in his normal-sized right hand. Continue to win with Smith at the helm and coach Mike Singletary, offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, GM Scot McCloughan and team president Jed York look like geniuses. If Smith regresses, then all of them - especially Smith - have big question marks hanging over them. Smith had a very promising outing Sunday against Jacksonville, but the next three-game stretch is critical. Singletary and Raye have been careful not to heap a lot of pressure on Smith's shoulders. The reality is that Raye and Singletary would be positively tickled if Smith sought more responsibility and a bigger leadership role as the 49ers head down the homestretch.
Josh Morgan. Raye had high praise for the No. 2 wideout on Thursday. "Even though the numbers statistically didn't bear out, Josh Morgan played his best game," Raye said of Morgan's performance against Jacksonville. "I think he was sudden and fast. He is a strong player without the ball and he added on very well. I thought it was his best performance to date." Morgan indeed is the strongest 49ers receiver and has become an excellent blocker, both in the running game and for his fellow receivers. However, he needs to show up more in the passing game. It's clear that Smith is comfortable throwing to Davis and Crabtree. He has not yet developed that chemistry with Morgan. Though Morgan will enter the 2010 offseason as the favorite for the No. 2 WR position, you can bet it won't be handed to him. Look for Jason Hill and Brandon Jones to be thrown into a competition designed to produce the best candidate.
Dre Bly. Bly wanted to use this season as a platform to prove to the NFL that he is still one of the league's top cornerbacks. This isn't what he had in mind. Following his ill-advised and premature interception celebration against Atlanta, Bly was practically booted out the door and had to plead his way back in. Still, there's time to salvage the season. Bly had a solid outing against Jacksonville, his first as a starter. He'll play three pass-oriented teams in a row, including a challenging match-up against the division-leading Cardinals. That game happens to be on national television and could be for the NFC West lead. That's a pretty ideal platform.
Delanie Walker. To this point in his career, Walker has had only a bit role in the 49ers offense. If he continues to produce like he did on Sunday, not only will Walker be prominent next season, it will further sway the offense toward a spread-like, Raye-Gun approach in 2010. The former sixth rounder from Central Missouri has big-time influence.
Ahmad Brooks. Brooks finally is getting a chance to prove himself. He and Parys Haralson will be the team's primary nickel pass rushers in Seattle, although those two and Manny Lawson will rotate among the two spots. Coaches and personnel guys have been singing Brooks' praises for almost two years now, but there has been nothing but flashes of potential on the field. With this increased role, Brooks will have a chance to make his mark over the next four games. If there is no new CBA, Brooks will be a restricted free agent after the season and the 49ers will retain him. If there is a new one, he'll be an unrestricted free agent. In other words, he has an opportunity to earn himself a nice payday between now and Jan. 3.
According to a friend of mine, if this video gets 1 million hits on Youtube, Medline will make a large donation to a hospital in Portland, as well as offer free mammograms to the community. It looks like it already has 3 million views, but let's give it a Niners bump anyway. (I like the janitor at the beginning. Dude's got skillz)
-- Matt Barrows