The 49ers’ bleak 2014 season and their epidemic of injuries were reflected in Pro Bowl balloting this year: Only offensive linemen Joe Staley and Mike Iupati are heading to Glendale, Ariz., next month.
Those selections underscore how the team has stumbled since last season when a league-high eight players – plus six alternates – were selected. The 49ers had seven Pro Bowl starters the two seasons before that, which at the time were franchise records. The last time they had two Pro Bowlers was 2010, which also was their last non-winning season.
Staley and Iupati both are ranked highly by the scouting service Pro Football Focus. Staley gets a +21.4 grade – fourth highest among all NFL tackles – while Iupati gets a +9.9 grade, 14th best among guards. The 49ers’ rushing offense ranks sixth in the league, but San Francisco has surrendered 51 sacks, the third most of any offensive line.
“It means a lot,” said Iupati, who was voted to his third consecutive Pro Bowl. “It’s all about that respect. You’ve just got to play. If you love playing the game, then people in front of you respect you as a player. It’s hard work.”
Safety Antoine Bethea, guard Alex Boone, inside linebacker Chris Borland, running back Frank Gore and defensive tackle Justin Smith were named as alternates.
Among the 49ers who might feel a bit snubbed this year are Bethea and cornerback Perrish Cox. Bethea is second on the team in tackles and has four interceptions. Even the man who was replaced by Bethea in San Francisco, Cleveland Browns safety Donte Whitner, thought Bethea was a bad omission. “@ABethea41 should be a starter in the pro bowl. Seriously,” Whitner wrote on Twitter.
Seattle’s Kam Chancellor and Denver’s T.J. Ward made the team ahead of Bethea at strong safety. Cox, meanwhile, is tied for third in the NFL with five interceptions, and for long stretches this season he has doubled as a return man.
Last year, Staley, Iupati, Gore, Smith, tight end Vernon Davis, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman all were voted in.
A number of those players may not be around next season. Iupati and Gore are scheduled to become free agents in March, while Davis and Brooks have high salary-cap figures that could make them expendable during the offseason.
The 49ers appear to be preparing for Iupati’s exit. The team selected highly regarded guard Brandon Thomas in the third round in May, and the hope is that Thomas will be completely recovered from the ACL injury he suffered in the spring and will compete for spot on the starting offensive line.
At one point this year, this seemed as if it would be Gore’s final season with the team. But general manager Trent Baalke recently said the team would like to re-sign the 10-year veteran.
That’s partially because of Gore’s recent performances. He ran for 158 yards against San Diego on Saturday and hasn’t accumulated a lot of wear and tear in a year the 49ers tilted away from their running game at times. Gore is on pace for 245 carries after averaging 319 the previous three seasons, including playoffs.
Gore said Tuesday he wants to be back but that he has yet to talk about a new contract with the team.
“I want to be here,” he said. “I was raised here, man”
Willis, meanwhile, made it to the Pro Bowl his first seven seasons. A toe injury this year, however, forced him out of action in Week 6 and his streak was broken. Bowman didn’t play a snap this season after suffering an ACL injury in the 2013 NFC Championship Game.
Beginning last season, the Pro Bowl changed its traditional NFC vs. AFC format. Instead, the teams will be picked next month by two captains, former wide receivers Cris Carter and Michael Irvin.
Punter Andy Lee, who has been to three previous Pro Bowls, said he would have stood a better chance this season under the previous format. He ranks sixth in the league with a 46.7-yard average, and four of the punters ahead of him are in the AFC.
He said not making the annual all-star squads are something 49ers players have to expect in a down season.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.