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When defensive coordinator Robert Saleh makes his first play call in Week 1, the defense on the field will be drastically different from the one that closed out the 2018 season. The front office was not shy about reloading a group that had been ravaged by injuries and underperforming players. All three levels of the defense were addressed either via trade, free agency or the draft. Last year, only one 49ers defender was selected to the Pro Bowl as an alternate; will 2019 produce more defensive stars?
The easiest place to start is with 2018’s lone Pro Bowler, DeForest Buckner. Buckner racked up 12 sacks last season without much help from the rest of the defensive line. He has developed into every bit of the player the 49ers hoped to be drafting at seventh overall in 2016. Buckner has proven to be stout against the run and has established numerous pass rush counters that allow him to muscle through consistent double teams. Now that the edge has been greatly improved with the additions of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, Buckner should face one-on-one blocking far more often. While his sack numbers may take a dip, his overall play should take a huge step. He faces stiff competition to land a spot on the coveted All-Pro roster as other defensive interior players include Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt, Fletcher Cox and Chris Jones, however, a second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance is well within reach.
Speaking of the upgraded edge position, Ford and Bosa should both be in line for big seasons. Ford has already shown the capability of earning a spot in an NFL All-Star game after he represented the AFC in last year’s Pro Bowl. He will look to replicate his performance from a year ago when he led the league with seven forced fumbles. His speed rush was good enough to give tackle Joe Staley fits in their Week 3 matchup last year. Staley, when asked about the acquisition of Ford said, “He’s one of the most explosive players I’ve played against. He was definitely a challenge to go against last year and every time I’ve ever played him.” Ford should see a decrease in his overall number of snaps, keeping his legs fresher as he, and the rest of the defensive line, face relatively weak offensive lines in the rest of the NFC West.
Ford will not be the only talent rushing the passer from the outside as this year’s second-overall pick, Nick Bosa, will try to live up to the near year-long hype of being the best player in the draft. A polished pass rusher already, he also plays the run extremely well and represents the youngest and most talented edge defender the 49ers have had since Aldon Smith. Bosa will look to match his brother’s productivity on the field and in the trophy case as he tries to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award just as Joey Bosa did in 2016. The combination of Buckner, Ford and Bosa spearheading the pass rush takes a 2018 weakness and turns it into a 2019 strength that could result in all three receiving postseason accolades.
In the linebacking corps, newcomer Kwon Alexander comes with a 2017 Pro Bowl on his resume and Fred Warner is coming off a very solid rookie campaign despite the ever-rotating group of ‘backers he played alongside. If Alexander can fully recover from his ACL tear from last October, his penchant for creating turnovers could help him stand out from a very talented pool of linebackers across the NFL. In order for Warner to truly standout among the league’s best, his game will need to take a drastic step forward. Being a solid linebacker is not enough to be recognized on a national level. At the end of the day, it is questionable that either one is anything more than a Pro Bowl alternate.
It is impossible to talk about postseason awards and leave out three-time First Team All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler Richard Sherman. His first season in the Bay was not nearly as successful as the seasons he saw in Seattle but that was not necessarily his fault. Sherman was the least-thrown-at cornerback last season, which did not lend itself to putting up some of the gaudy numbers of his past. The cornerbacks playing opposite him in 2018 were picked on early and often because they allowed much larger windows for quarterbacks to throw in. Sherman recognized that many of the faults were not indicative of a lack of skill from his teammates saying, “It was just guys’ immaturity, mistakes, just not executing.” A vastly improved pass rush will help take this secondary to new heights and Sherman could be the main beneficiary. His returning to his previous All-Pro level given his age and Achilles injury may not be possible, but an uptick in interceptions could very well land him a fifth Pro Bowl nod.
All told, it is unlikely for the 49ers to field six Pro Bowlers on the same defense. That has not been seen since 2013 when Vic Fangio was coordinating one of the best defenses in the history of the league. However, it is equally unlikely that they will only field one Pro Bowl alternate this season. Either way, the defense is set to be greatly improved and if those upgrades lead to wins, wins lead to national attention and national attention leads to Pro Bowl votes.
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