For all of the talk about individuals in football, from Most Valuable Player to Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year to, in a few days, Super Bowl MVP, football is a game about units. So with that in mind, let’s leave the quarterbacks to the side (unless someone wants to suggest Brock Purdy is better than Patrick Mahomes) and rank all of the positional units in the Super Bowl from best to worst. How do the 49ers’ all-world pass catchers compare not just to the Chiefs’ sorry group of receivers, but to Kansas City’s best positional group—the DBs—and all the units in between?
Because while we spend all our time this week thinking about Mahomes and the best players on the field, Mahomes is spending his time this week thinking about how he can attack whoever he believes is the worst player on the field. That is often what coaches on the sideline, like Kyle Shanahan, are thinking about too. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top groups in the Super Bowl, with a particular emphasis on weak links.
1. 49ers Skill Players
RB: Christian McCaffrey
WR: Deebo Samuel
WR: Brandon Aiyuk
TE: George Kittle
FB: Kyle Juszczyk
The 49ers offense is like Taco Bell. Just as Taco Bell can take the same five ingredients and package them as five different meals, the 49ers can send out these same five players and package them in five completely different ways. Christian McCaffrey is a running back who can line up and win a one-on-one at wide receiver. Deebo Samuel is a wide receiver who can take handoffs out of the backfield. Kyle Juszczyk is a fullback who can make toe-tap catches 25 yards down the sideline. Brandon Aiyuk is a wildly athletic wide receiver with incredible route-running technique who can crush blocks in the run game, and tight end George Kittle blocks like a tackle but is faster than some receivers. The result is that opposing defenses have to choose whom they will lose to each play rather than simply trying to win.
The 49ers’ skill-position group trumps any other positional group in this Super Bowl because of those matchup challenges. Put three linebackers on the field, and they’re defending McCaffrey, Kittle, and Juszczyk. Put five defensive backs on the field, and you’ve got the NFL’s best all-around tight end and the first-team All-Pro fullback matched up against a slot cornerback. There is a reason this offense is so difficult to stop.
49ers wide receiver Jauan Jennings was the highest-graded blocker on zone run plays of the 187 wide receivers this season to block on a minimum of 30 run plays. Aiyuk ranked third. Out of the 109 tight ends with 30 run-blocking snaps on zone runs, Kittle ranks fifth. San Francisco’s run game is so dominant because these guys block their butts off.
2. Chiefs Secondary
CB: L’Jarius Sneed
CB: Joshua Williams
CB: Trent McDuffie
S: Justin Reid
S: Mike Edwards
The Chiefs secondary is the strength of a defense that ranks seventh in DVOA. There is no better example than the season-saving play Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed made to punch the ball out of the hands of Ravens receiver Zay Flowers in the AFC championship game.
This is just mean.— Joe Bryant (@Football_Guys) January 29, 2024
But on a serious note, what a fantastic play by Sneed.
Sneed has been keeping opponents from making big plays all season. He did not allow a touchdown in the regular season. The first score he allowed came in the divisional round against Buffalo. He’s been phenomenal against top receivers, allowing Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson to make just three catches for 28 yards, and he held Tyreek Hill to exactly 62 yards in each of the two games against the Dolphins this season. He’s made a case that he might be the best cornerback in football.
The man who recovered that fumble by Flowers in the end zone was Kansas City’s slot corner Trent McDuffie, whom Kansas City drafted in the first round in 2022 (and he was named a first-team All-Pro this season). His rapid development, particularly as a run defender, has allowed the Chiefs to play well from nickel defense packages.
But it’s not just stars in the starting lineup. Kansas City’s depth is what sets it apart. Their backup cornerbacks include second-year corners Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams, who are both between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3, putting them above the 90th percentile in height among cornerbacks. They are tall, and they can run, and they were able to handle one-on-one matchups in a way that gave Lamar Jackson fits.
Safety Justin Reid is the brains of the back end, handling defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s complex coverages—and also the Spagnuolo T-shirts.
3. 49ers Linebackers
MLB: Fred Warner
WLB: Dre Greenlaw
WLB: Oren Burks
Warner is the best linebacker in football. Don’t take my word for it. Back in 2020, Aaron Rodgers told Fred Warner that he was the best linebacker in the game and that he believed he should be a first-team All-Pro. Warner has achieved just that three times since then, including this season. He blends an ability to step up in the run game with a center fielder’s uncanny ability to break on the football like former Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas. He is literally and figuratively the center of San Francisco’s defense.
Fellow 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw is also one of the best linebackers in football, a physical thumper. “They’re two of the most athletic linebackers in the league,” Andy Reid said at media night on Monday.
4. 49ers Defensive Line
Edge: Nick Bosa
Edge: Chase Young
DT: Arik Armstead
DT: Javon Hargrave
“Their front, it starts with that; they’re really good,” Reid said on Monday. “That front defensive line, that front four is something.”
Nick Bosa, the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year, had the third-highest pass-rush grade for edge according to Pro Football Focus, ahead of T.J. Watt and behind only Micah Parsons and Myles Garrett. Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave each ranked among the top six defensive tackles in pass-rushing grades according to PFF. As long as Chase Young, whom the 49ers acquired at the trade deadline from Washington, actually, you know, tries to tackle people in the Super Bowl, something he didn’t seem all that interested in doing in the NFC championship game, this unit could change the game.
5. 49ers Offensive Line
LT: Trent Williams
LG: Aaron Banks
C: Jake Brendel
RG: Jon Feliciano
RT: Colton McKivitz
The 49ers offensive line is a weird group to rank because it includes a future Hall of Famer but is still the team’s weakest offensive unit. Left tackle Trent Williams is perhaps the best tackle of the past decade. Nothing about the way he plays would make you believe he’s 35 years old. Williams is the third-highest-graded run blocker on PFF and is still athletic enough to be the lead blocker who annihilates defenders in open space. In pass protection, just 13 percent of the pressures Purdy faced were partially Williams’s fault. That’s the second-lowest percentage for any left tackle in the NFL per PFF (among players with a minimum of 80 dropback pressures). Williams might be the best athlete on the team, an incredible feat considering the 49ers also have Samuel and McCaffrey.
And then there is the rest of the line. A quarter of Purdy’s pressures this season were at least partially attributed to his right tackle (Colton McKivitz), which tied for the eighth-highest mark in the league. The interior of the 49ers offensive line is shaky, and it was exposed against the Cleveland Browns back in October, especially left guard Aaron Banks and center Jake Brendel, who struggled against interior pressure. Right guard Jon Feliciano replaced Spencer Burford for the second half of the season, and the move has helped stabilize the line.
6. Chiefs Defensive Line
DT: Chris Jones
DT: Mike Pennel
Edge: George Karlaftis
Edge: Mike Danna
Like the 49ers offensive line, the Chiefs defensive line has one superstar—defensive tackle Chris Jones—and a bunch of average dudes. Jones is a legit game-wrecker who was essential to the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win over the 49ers four years ago, batting down three of Jimmy Garoppolo’s passes in the fourth quarter. This season, Jones ranks third in pass-rush grade from PFF among defensive tackles, behind only Dexter Lawrence and Aaron Donald, and he was named first-team All-Pro, with 10.5 sacks.
The rest of the group is underwhelming, particularly on the interior of the line, after defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi landed on injured reserve with a triceps injury. The Chiefs go into the Super Bowl with 32-year-old journeyman Mike Pennel, who was previously with the Chiefs in 2019, and undrafted free agent Tershawn Wharton. Without Jones, this would be the worst part of Kansas City’s roster.
At edge rusher, the Chiefs have former first-rounder George Karlaftis, who tied Jones for the team lead with 10.5 sacks. But since Charles Omenihu is out with a torn ACL after last month’s AFC championship game, the Chiefs are now starting edge rusher Mike Danna. Karlaftis is an ascending player but not yet elite, and there is a reason the Chiefs’ opponents were called for just 10 holding penalties all year, the lowest in the entire NFL. Outside of Jones, these defenders are not beating their blockers often.
The Chiefs did lead the NFL in batted passes this season, which is kind of a mixed stat. On one hand, batted passes are a fantastic play. On the other hand, batted passes often happen when a defender is stonewalled and can’t get into the backfield. But it’s a good example of why the Chiefs defense is good—it may not be the most talented group up front, but Spagnuolo has the awareness to put his guys in positions to succeed. These defensive linemen mostly move around to stop the run and set up Jones for one-on-ones the way James Harden’s teammates set up isos.
7. Chiefs Offensive Line
LT: Donovan Smith
LG: Joe Thuney
C: Creed Humphrey
RG: Trey Smith
RT: Jawaan Taylor
“They hold a lot,” Bosa said about the Chiefs offensive line last week—the rare pre–Super Bowl example of a player straight up giving the other side motivation.
But he’s not necessarily wrong. The Chiefs offensive line does have massive questions on the edges, and the Super Bowl could come down to how well the tackles fare in their matchups (and how much the refs weigh in). Facing off against Bosa and Young are left tackle Donovan Smith and right tackle Jawaan Taylor. You may know Taylor as the guy who was called for five penalties in Week 2 against Jacksonville, a week after he lined up illegally on nearly every play of the Chiefs’ opener against Detroit. Taylor was called for 17 penalties in 2023, the most by any player since 2015. Smith spent eight years with the Bucs but was cut last offseason, and he signed with the Chiefs for just $3 million, suggesting teams were unimpressed with what he had left.
Kansas City makes up for bad tackle play with a dominant interior offensive line. Left guard Joe Thuney, center Creed Humphrey, and right guard Trey Smith are some of the most physical interior players in the game. It will be crucial for them to establish physicality and win in the running game in the middle of the line so the 49ers cannot expose the Chiefs on the edges. Thuney is questionable for the game with a pectoral injury, and Reid called him a “long shot” to play. His absence would be a huge blow for the Chiefs, as they will likely turn back to Nick Allegretti, who has been a Chiefs backup lineman for five years.
8. 49ers Secondary
CB: Charvarius Ward
CB: Deommodore Lenoir
CB: Ambry Thomas
S: Tashaun Gipson Sr.
S: Ji’Ayir Brown
Nobody in the 49ers secondary is even one of the dozen most famous players on this team—even Juszczyk has been profiled in The Wall Street Journal. But this unit has had some good moments. Tashaun Gipson Sr.’s hit-stick tackle on Lions tight end Sam LaPorta, when the score was tied in the third quarter, was a moment that changed the game. Charvarius Ward has Super Bowl experience, winning a championship with Kansas City before signing with the 49ers in 2022. The weakness here is Ambry Thomas. Green Bay and Jordan Love consistently targeted Thomas in the divisional round, suggesting head coach Matt LaFleur believed he was the weak link of the 49ers secondary—and thus the weak link of the entire 49ers defense. Expect Mahomes to test and target Thomas often.
9. Chiefs Linebackers
WLB: Willie Gay Jr.
MLB: Nick Bolton
SLB: Drue Tranquill
WLB: Leo Chenal
You likely remember Nick Bolton as the guy who scooped up Jalen Hurts’s fumble in the Super Bowl last year and returned it for a touchdown to tie the game at 14. Bolton also dropped what should have been a pick-six on Lamar Jackson in the AFC championship game. Bolton, a second-rounder in 2021, has come to embody the Chiefs’ big-play style of defense.
But overall, this group matches up poorly with the 49ers skill players, and it could be costly in the Super Bowl. While Bolton and Leo Chenal should be able to hold their own, it’s hard to see this group consistently covering and chasing down McCaffrey, Kittle, or even Juszczyk.
10. Chiefs Skill Players
RB: Isiah Pacheco
WR: Rashee Rice
WR: Marquez Valdes-Scantling
WR: Justin Watson
WR: Kadarius Toney
WR: Mecole Hardman
TE: Travis Kelce
TE: Noah Gray
What a chaotic collection of players. Travis Kelce, who, at 34 years old, remains the Chiefs’ no. 1 receiving option, just passed Jerry Rice for the most playoff catches ever and has 20 touchdowns in 21 playoff games (19 receiving, one passing). Rookie receiver Rashee Rice (no relation to Jerry) was one of the best young receivers down the stretch and emerged as a reliable target for Mahomes. Every other receiver’s season was defined by their inability to hold on to the football. The Chiefs receivers led all teams in drops this year.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling was the hero of the AFC championship game, perhaps because the expectations for him were so low that fans and opponents alike seemed stunned that MVS was able to catch a pass to clinch the game. Mecole Hardman was reacquired in a midseason trade with the Jets, and he not only had one of the worst punt returns in the NFL once he came back, but he also fumbled at the goal line on his first offensive snap of the divisional round versus Buffalo, putting the Chiefs’ season at risk as soon as the game looked to be in hand. Kadarius Toney personally accounted for two of the five Chiefs losses this year by handing Detroit a pick-six in Week 1 and lining up offside, negating his lateral touchdown versus Buffalo in Week 14. Toney was inactive in the AFC championship game and spent Sunday morning shit-talking Andy Reid and the Chiefs on Instagram Live. He could be a healthy scratch in the Super Bowl, which is a huge blow for the 49ers.
With those receivers struggling, Isiah Pacheco has become a focal point of the offense, and he’s more than just a meme about running “like he bite people.” He’s a physical finisher. Though he hit 100 rushing yards in a game only three times this season, he will be key to the Chiefs’ chances on Sunday. And with Jerick McKinnon injured and Clyde Edwards-Helaire still underperforming, Pacheco has had to add to his receiving work recently too, including a career-high seven catches in Week 17. That’s a skill that simply was not in his repertoire in his rookie season in 2022.
Obviously, ranking this group last might be harsh considering Kelce is in the fold, Rice is trending up, and Pacheco is so fun to watch. But the first rule of winning in the NFL is to not beat yourself, and this group is littered with guys who did that. Hardman, MVS, Toney, and Justin Watson each made major mistakes in crucial moments that make it difficult to view this group as anything other than the biggest liability for either team in this game. The chaotic nature of Hardman and MVS just might offset the otherworldly chemistry of Mahomes and Kelce. Trusting these guys will define the Super Bowl for the Chiefs. We’ll see whether it’s a good choice.