Image Credit: Associated Press
From 2014 to 2017 the San Francisco 49ers drafted three defensive lineman in the first round, looking to bolster their run and pass defense. Two of those players were drafted in the top ten (Deforest Buckner and Solomon Thomas). But Buckner is the only one of those three picks who has really panned out as a star in the 49ers defense. The team has struggled to figure out how to play all three of those players together, often placing Thomas or Arik Armstead out of position as edge rushers.
Since John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan became general manager and head coach respectively, they have also brought in players like Cassius Marsh and Dekoda Watson to try and round out the defensive line. By the end of the 2018 season, fans and journalist alike have pointed out how this defensive line has not improved nor done enough in games to earn the type of money it would take to keep all three first round defensive lineman, and the fact of the matter was self evident: Buckner, Armstead, and Thomas need help.
Buckner was the only standout of the 49ers defensive line in 2018. He collected 12 sacks and 67 combined tackles, leading the team in sacks, and the defensive line in tackles. These were all increases from the 2017 season improving from 3 sacks and 61 combined tackles. Although Armstead didn’t have the big sack numbers Buckner created, he was able to stay healthy and start in all 16 games for the first time in his career. His 2018 stats looked more like Buckner’s 2017 season, with 3 sacks and 48 combined tackles. Thomas saw his numbers decrease from an already disappointing rookie season, recording only 1 sack, which came against the Raiders when Derek Carr ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage and Thomas was the closest player to him.
The only other defensive linemen who put up any mentionable statistical influence for the team was Marsh and Ronald Blair, both of whom recorded 5.5 sacks from the defensive end/edge rusher position. To say the least. The 49ers defensive line was a bit of a disappointment in 2018.
Enter the 2019 off season. During the free agency period, Lynch’s biggest addition to the team came via a trade, not signing. By shipping off their 2020 second round pick, the 49ers were able to trade for Dee Ford, a former first round draft pick himself and the most dangerous edge rusher of the 2018 NFL season. Then in the draft, the Arizona Cardinals gift wrapped Nick Bosa, the best pure pass rusher to come out of college football in the past few years, by drafting Kyler Murray first overall.
Just like that the 49ers improved their defensive line into possibly one of the best front fours in all of football. Boasting five first round draft picks, three of which were drafted in the top ten picks of their respective drafts, to fill four starting positions. Couple that with their move towards using the ‘wide 9 technique’ and the 49ers defense could now boast two of the best edge rushers in the NFL in Ford and Bosa and a top three DT in Buckner.
Adding this breadth of talent from the edge with Bosa and Ford should create even more sacks for Buckner, Armstead, and Thomas alike. Buckner could even push Aaron Donald for the most sacks by a DT in 2019, considering he was only a half a sack per game behind Donald without much help from the edge rushers. Depending on defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s rotation, the 49ers defensive line could boast four or five different players with ten or more sacks. Ford and Bosa’s quickness off of the edge should cause more quarterbacks to step right into Buckner, Armstead, and Thomas’ waiting arms, and Buckner has already shown the ability to flush quarterbacks out of the pocket, and he will have Bosa and Ford chasing them down instead of journeymen pass rushers.
The days of getting by with cast off free agents and journeymen looking to leave their mark have ended for Saleh. With Thomas and Bosa on rookie deals and Ford with a shiny new contract, all Lynch has to do is extend Buckner and decide whether to extend Armstead past this season, and the 49ers could keep all five first rounders on that defensive line for the next two to three seasons. That should easily give them the best defensive line in the NFL for the foreseeable future.
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