Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The defense for the 49ers was a record setting unit in 2018, just not the kind of records that they were hoping to set. With just two interceptions and seven total turnovers, the 49ers set new NFL records in both categories. The 49ers’ defense also ranked near the bottom of the league in touchdown passes allowed (35) and in points allowed per game (27.2).
The 49ers’ defensive struggles were due to the inability to get pressure on the quarterback and the inability to consistently put the same lineup on the field from week to week. The linebacker unit saw a number of different personnel changes due to injury and off-field issues and the 49ers started eight different safety combinations in 16 games. The lack of continuity led to communication breakdowns that caused missed coverage assignments. Opposing quarterbacks had time to exploit the missed assignments because, for the most part the 49ers had trouble generating a pass rush. The defense recorded 37 sacks on the season, which ranked 22nd in the league, but 8 of those sacks came in the game against the hapless Oakland Raiders; without those 8 sacks, the 49ers would have finished next to last in that category.
The front office needs to focus on improving the pass rush, finding a way to cause more turnovers, fixing the communication problems in the secondary and adding more depth in the back seven (linebackers and secondary). Identifying the areas that need improving is the easy part, fixing them, less so. Here is the off-season checklist for improving the 49ers defense:
Bill Parcells, one of the greatest team builders of all-time, had three tiers for prioritizing the acquisition of specific positions in the off-season; I call it the Bill Parcells’ hierarchy of needs. At the top is “must have.” A “must have” in Parcells’ mind was an upgrade to a position that was needed immediately, so much so, that you couldn’t field a team without addressing the position. The next level in the hierarchy is “need.” A “need” is important to fill but less so than a “must have.” Finally there is the “want” level. A “want” is something more than a luxury but not so important that the team would not be competitive without it; a perfect example is the drafting of Mike McGlinchey. The 49ers could have gone into the 2018 season with Trent Brown and been fine at right tackle but had the chance to upgrade and avoided making the position a must have this off-season. For the 49ers this off-season there are two “must haves,” free safety and pass rusher, and fortunately there are options at each position available.
Free safety Earl Thomas is the archetype for the 49ers’ defense and should be priority number one in free agency. Thomas was limited to just four games in 2018 due to a fractured left leg, however, in those four games he had three interceptions, one more than the 49ers had as a team the entire year. Thomas will turn 30 in May and this is the second time he has fractured his left leg; the first time came two seasons ago. In 2016, Thomas elected to not have surgery to mend the break and it is likely what led to the break in 2018; he had surgery to repair the latest break, which will lessen the likelihood of a recurrence. Thomas would like to be paid (he made that clear in his holdout prior to the 2018 season). The 49ers have plenty of salary cap space and top of the market safety contracts are not that expensive. The 49ers can also offer Thomas the opportunity to play his former team twice a year, something that might be meaningful to him.
When it comes to pass rushers in free agency most of the time the sexiest names get signed to contract extensions or have the franchise tag placed on them. This free agent class has several intriguing edge pass rusher/defensive end types who may not excite most fans but are just what the 49ers need.
One of them is the Eagles’ Brandon Graham, who turns 31 in April, and is still performing at a high level, finishing 2018 as the 10th ranked edge defender by Pro Football Focus (PFF). Graham would also bring additional leadership and championship experience to a young 49ers defense, and would be good fit in the locker room.
Preston Smith could be an option at defensive end for the 49ers if they cannot lure Graham to Santa Clara. Smith has the physical profile (6’5”, 265 pounds) that fits what the 49ers look for in the Leo position, and at age 26 is an unfinished product. In his four NFL seasons, Smith has achieved a career-high 8 sacks twice, but has yet to exhibit consistency from year to year.
Dante Fowler Jr. is another intriguing option to fill the pass rush need. The former third overall pick in the 2015 draft could be headed to his third team this off-season, which is not surprising as Fowler has not lived up to his draft status; he is a liability in run defense and has had some off-field issues. However, at just 24 years old, Fowler could be a buy-low reclamation project.
Even though it does not rank as highly on the Parcells’ hierarchy of needs as a Leo or a defensive end, strong-side, (Sam) linebacker is an area the 49ers need to address in the off-season and there are plenty of options in free agency here as well.
Of the players likely to hit free agency, Anthony Barr might be the most intriguing fit for the 49ers. At 6-foot-5-inches and 255 pounds, he could be a versatile player along the defensive front. Barr could also have untapped potential as a pass rusher; he recorded 23½ sacks his last two years in college but has not been asked to rush the passer much as a professional. Barr does present a liability in pass coverage, as he received a 59.9 grade from Pro Football Focus.
Signing Shaquil Barrett is not likely to excite the fan base but he would be an upgrade for the 49ers over Mark Nzeocha in both run defense and in the pass rush, having graded out as the 23rd ranked edge defender by PFF. Barrett is a liability in pass coverage but is strong enough in other areas to be a net positive on defense.
At 33, Clay Matthews appears to be on the downside of his career but could be a short-term upgrade at Sam linebacker for the 49ers. Matthews would get more opportunities to rush the passer with San Francisco than he has in recent years and would be another veteran leader for the locker room.
According to Over The Cap, the 49ers will have $66 million in cap space this off-season and will free up more with the release of a few veterans that are no longer in the team’s plans going forward. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan should use the majority of the cap space to fortify the weaknesses on defense and improve the overall depth of the team, so that come draft time the team can truly focus on selecting the best available player.
As was the case with free agency, this year’s draft class aligns well with the team’s biggest needs. With only five picks in this year’s draft, the 49ers are a little short handed in terms of overall capital, but with the second overall pick, are in a prime position to pick up a future star on defense. My colleague, Zach Pratt, does an excellent job of breaking down some of the draft scenarios.
The expectation that the 49ers would be a competitive team in 2018 was shared by fans, the media and the NFL alike, although, 2019 may have been the target date all along. Paraag Marathe, the 49ers’ Executive Vice President of Football Operations, and general salary cap wizard, structured the contracts of some recent free agent signees so that the 49ers would have ample salary cap room this off-season, for example, Jimmy Garoppolo’s cap hit dips from $37 million in 2018 to $20 million in 2019 and then back into the mid-20s for the remainder of the deal. With money to spend and a lengthy shopping list, this off-season promises to be a busy one for the 49ers.
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