Ranking the top-20 most important 49ers in 2018 (#5-1)

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a four-part series ranking the 20 most important players for the 49ers in 2018. To reiterate, the player value is influenced by how critical it is they be available for all 16(+) games. It considers snaps/usage, their contract, how much the team needs them to play to their potential, and the depth and importance of their position.​ Head here for Part I (#20-16), Part II (#15-11), and Part III (#10-6).

#5 Richard Sherman, CB

Their top free-agent acquisition in 2018 and one of the very best players in the NFL, if Sherman returns to where he was pre-injury, or is even close to that, his impact will greatly influence a run by the 49ers. Sherman also happens to be Hall of Fame caliber at one of the hardest positions around, which gives him added value. There's not many like him, and it makes him one of the team's more indispensable players already and certainly someone they're counting on.

But the cherry on top is the much-needed veteran leadership Sherman brings to a young defense that's been a work in progress. He's already accelerated the development of young star cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, is involved with the tutelage and personal development of all the defensive backs, and has been a mentor to safety Adrian Colbert, who looks up to Sherman's old teammate Earl Thomas.

Now all of a sudden the defensive backfield is looking mighty promising. Only a year ago, the 49ers, lacking both talent and experience, had a bottom-10 passing defense. Today they have the potential to form their own iteration of the Legion of Boom or No Fly Zone. So when you think about it, with his combined play and leadership, Sherman helping flip the secondary from a team weakness into a strength could change things remarkably, especially when it's so important to defend the pass well.

#4 Joe Staley, LT

No surprise here as Staley is a cornerstone player for the 49ers, and has been since 2007. But now the perennial Pro Bowler is working with Shanahan, whose system takes full advantage of his rare athleticism and movement skills. And even though he's 32 years old, Staley's been revitalized, bringing enthusiasm we haven't seen since the Harbaugh era. And that's translated on the field, as he's still among the top tackles in the NFL in every measure, excelling as both a run- and pass-blocker.

It's so important Staley be in the lineup for 16(+) games this year, more so than any non-quarterback on offense, as he is primarily responsible for protecting Jimmy Garoppolo's blindside and being a fixture in Shanahan's rushing attack which calls for athletic linemen. His caliber and direct correlation to those two things makes him irreplaceable.

Mike McGlinchey, in theory, could move over to LT if Staley weren't available, but in any case, there's no tackle depth beyond that. The domino effect of not having Staley - or him starting to show signs of a decline - would be devastating. With his toughness, work ethic, professionalism and team-oriented mentality, Staley's the true spirit of the 49ers, and the type of player to co-spearhead a Super Bowl season.

#3 DeForest Buckner, DL

Big. Powerful. Disruptive. Scary. Buckner is the personification of what the 49ers want to be on defense, and could be on the brink of a Pro Bowl or even All-Pro season at defensive tackle, which is saying something considering he shares a conference with Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox. But he's been on that level, and it's close to showing up on the stat sheet. Buckner is entering his third NFL season, his second in the same system, and his next contract is on the horizon.

And now with new pass-rush specialist Chris Kiffin, the 49ers are tailoring the blitz around Buckner, which could lead to a career year, and maybe even double-digit sacks. So, there's the individual player development, growth within his role and incentive.

Everything considered, this is a player that was already great, and the 49ers are asking him to be better in 2018. They're counting on him to convert pressures to sacks and do it without much added personnel help, in a season in which they are considered by many to be competing. This season is important for Buckner because he is a franchise player, and they need him to start producing like one now that there's really something to play for.

#2 Reuben Foster, LB

An elite-level linebacker in only his second year in the league, Foster returns as the polarizing general of the 49ers' defense. The last time we saw this quick a start for an off-the-ball LB in the NFL it was with Luke Kuechly in 2012 and Patrick Willis before him in 2007. Foster translated similarly because has that same blend of size and athleticism, instincts, passion for the game and football intelligence.

People know Foster is brute and gets to the ball, but not everyone knows how he maintains that omnipresence. A large part is due to him being a football junkie who watches a lot of film. Foster's ability to process tape, and then anticipate and ID plays, and shut them down at their inception on game day, is invaluable.

He can let his athleticism just take over. And with his ability to affect the run and pass from the LB spot, he's the one that will collect and trigger the most play stoppages for the defense. He can also make pre-snap adjustments to get his unit in a position to make a play, even if he's not the one in on it. The 49ers are fortunate to have Foster as the nucleus of their defense, as his availability will be key to a run in 2018.

#1 Jimmy Garoppolo, QB

This wasn't hard to see coming. Jimmy Garoppolo is what makes the Super Bowl conversation around the 49ers real. He is the sole player on this roster, and one of a handful in the league, whose presence affects a team's chances that greatly. We know because Garoppolo was the difference between a winless team and an undefeated team.

And he proved it in a year in which he switched teams midseason, taking on one of the most complex yet talent-deprived offenses in the league.

Now the stakes are raised for the 49ers and expectations for Garoppolo are way higher. He's a $100 million quarterback, the front office has altered its strategy to build around him, and he's seemingly receiving a glowing endorsement from a teammate, coach, former player or media outlet everyday. Very few are not all in on Garoppolo. It feels like No. 1 overall pick expectations.

And while he's unbeaten in seven career starts, that's all he has, is seven career starts. What he's preparing to do this year is very different. This is the first time he's been tabbed as QB1 for a full 16-game season. The 49ers also finished No. 2 in the league in passing attempts last year, with Garoppolo averaging 35.2 in his five starts, which would've placed him sixth in NFL among quarterbacks with at least 300 attempts. So, from a projection standpoint, most games will rest on his arm. There is immense pressure, and nobody on this team needs to live up to the hype more.

Media courtesy Getty Images, USA Today Sports Images, AP Images, SI, Icon SportsWire, Stan Olszewski/S.F. Examiner

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