Kyle Shanahan on Wednesday made it pretty clear which positions are the most important when it comes to constructing a football team.
“I’d say a quarterback on offense and an edge rusher on defense,” the 49ers coach said.
Shanahan was answering a question about whether an elite pass rusher off the edge could transform a defense more than any other player. His statement indirectly highlights San Francisco’s most glaring deficiencies throughout 2018 and roster needs heading into a pivotal offseason.
“A quarterback can hide a lot of problems, and so can a pass rush,” he said.
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The 49ers have been without franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo since September following his season-ending left knee injury. They’ve been without a prominent edge defender since Aldon Smith was released before the 2015 season due to issues off the field.
San Francisco entered this season electing not to bring back their 2017 leader in sacks, Elvis Dumervil, instead rolling the dice with Cassius Marsh (3.5 sacks), last year’s third overall pick Solomon Thomas (one) and Arik Armstead (three).
The team’s only consistent pass rusher the past three seasons has been DeForest Buckner, who has a career-best nine sacks this season. But the 49ers for the year have 29 sacks, tied for the ninth-fewest in the NFL, while the passing defense ranks 20th.
Without a starting quarterback and lackluster pass rush, it’s not surprising Shanahan’s team is tied for the worst record in the NFL (2-10) and currently in the driver’s seat for the top overall pick in the upcoming draft.
The good news: the draft is shaping up to give the 49ers possible answers for pass rushing defensive ends. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa is widely considered the top prospect available, having logged 17.5 sacks and 29 tackles for loss in 29 games for the Buckeyes.
His brother, Joey, was selected by the Chargers at No. 3 overall in 2016 with 26 sacks in 38 games in college. He’s logged double-digit sacks in his first two NFL seasons and has three sacks in his past three games since returning from a foot injury.
Other prospects such as Josh Allen (Kentucky), Clelin Ferrell (Clemson), Jachai Polite (Florida), Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) and Brian Burns (Florida State) are also possible first-round options.
“You can do different things in coverage, you can be more aggressive (when you have an effective pass rush),” Shanahan said.
“You can have some holes and some vulnerabilities that you can see as a coach. There’s lots of stuff you’d like to try (offensively) versus some of these coverages. And a lot of people will come in draw it on the board, and it’s like, ‘Man, that’s great. Have you watched the end zone copy yet? (Because) I know he’ll be open. But our (quarterback’s) helmets is going to be rolling on the ground by the time we throw it.’”
Sixth-rounder could make roster — The 49ers are planning to place defensive end and special teams standout Dekoda Watson on season-ending injured reserve with a torn calf suffered Sunday in Seattle. Watson, 30, played in just four games in 2018 after beginning the season on injured reserve following an August hamstring injury.
Watson’s injury means the 49ers are considering adding 2017 sixth-round draft pick Pita Taumoepenu, a pass rusher, from the practice squad. The Utah alum appeared in two games late last season but didn’t play a defensive snap.
“I know we’re working out a number of practice-squad guys,” Shanahan said. “I can’t guarantee it, but that’s definitely what we’re leaning towards. We’ll see how these next two days go.”
Taumoepenu has failed to make the team out of training camp, but he’s been on the practice squad in hopes of developing. He had five tackles, including one for loss, during two preseason games in August.
New long snapper found — With Kyle Nelson serving a 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy, the team added Colin Holba, a sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 who wound up playing seven games for the Jacksonville Jaguars last season.
Holba was wearing No. 40 on the practice field, though his addition to the roster hasn’t been made official.
Nelson was placed on the reserve-suspended list and is eligible to participate in all offseason and preseason practices and games following the 2018 season prior to resuming his suspension at the start of the 2019 regular season.
Injury report — Running back Matt Breida (ankle) and safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder) did not practice Wednesday and have already been ruled out for Sunday’s home game against the Denver Broncos. Left tackle Joe Staley was given his normal Wednesday off.
Guard Joshua Garnett (thumb), linebacker Mark Nzeocha (thigh) and rookie defensive back D.J. Reed (heel, chest) practiced in full. It was Garnett’s first session since undergoing thumb surgery that caused him to miss the past two games. Reed missed this past Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks after suffering his injuries during the loss at Tampa Bay on Nov. 25.
▪ Limited in practice: safety Antone Exum (knee), receiver Pierre Garcon (knee), center Weston Richburg (knee), linebacker Malcolm Smith (achilles) and guard Laken Tomlinson (hip).
▪ Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (personal reasons) returned to practice for the first time since leaving the team before the loss to the Buccaneers.