Nick Bosa’s junior season with Ohio State was off to a promising start.
The talented defensive end logged four sacks in his first three games of 2018 as he hoped to solidify himself as the best defensive player in the country. Doing that, of course, would also help cement his future in the NFL, when he was widely expected to be the first prospect drafted in 2019 even before the season began.
But then on the third play of the second half against TCU in September, Bosa felt a sharp pain in his abdomen and hit the deck, requiring attention from the medical staff. It didn’t take long for him to realize his college career might be over sooner than expected.
“I knew my season was in jeopardy and I had a doctor confirm that. It was tough, but it had to be done,” Bosa told reporters at the NFL scouting combine Saturday in Indianapolis.
He required months of rehab in order to rejoin his teammates and complete a bid for the College Football Playoff. But Bosa roughly a month later elected to sit the remainder of the season out in order to focus on preparing for the NFL draft when his professional future, and millions of dollars, would be on the line.
“When it happened, when I got home from that TCU game I was lying in bed, I could barely get it. It was one of the darkest moments of my life so far,” Bosa said. “For me to talk to my family and let them bring me up and let me know that my life is still good and I still have amazing blessings and a bright future, that’s what helped me get through it.”
The story of the combine from the 49ers’ perspective has been the rise of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, whose height was questioned heading into the week despite having supreme athleticism that help him win the Heisman Trophy last season.
Murray was measured at 5-foot-10 1/8, 207 pounds and 9 1/2-inch hands. Those marks are widely considered strong enough to clear the thresholds for quarterbacks, and the buzz has been increasing that Murray will be the first player taken in the draft April 25 either by the Arizona Cardinals or a team they trade the top pick to.
Of course, that scenario means the best defensive player could fall to the second pick owned by San Francisco. And it’s widely believed that Bosa would be the selection to help solve the team’s longstanding issues at defensive end.
Bosa – who measured at nearly 6-foot-4, 266 pounds and had 29 reps on the bench press – is headlining a talented group of defensive-line prospects which could allow the 49ers to trade down to acquire a different pass rusher while accumulating more draft picks.
“I would tell you that it’s a great year to be looking for D-linemen in general,” general manager John Lynch said this week. “This is as strong of a class as the last eight years at the defensive line.”
Bosa is planning to be a full participant in combine workouts Sunday despite only recently getting back to top capacity. He told reporters he had scheduled meetings with the teams holding the top eight picks of the first round, including Arizona.
“I’ve been training at full speed for a couple months, but actually feeling like myself, not feeling soreness after, probably a few weeks,” he said. “The toughest part is the beginning. It’s such a unique injury in that it’s literally the muscle used to breathe, to cough, to go to the bathroom. It’s your core muscle, it’s something different than I’ve dealt with before. It’s really gradual, small steps. Once you get through it, I’m feeling better than I’ve ever felt right now.”
Bosa logged 17 1/2 sacks and 29 tackles for loss over three seasons at Ohio State. He’s a stout, powerful prospect and a mirror image of his brother, Joey, who has 28.5 sacks in 33 games since being taken with the No. 3 pick by the Chargers in 2016.
Nick Bosa was widely expected to be a top NFL prospect dating to his high school days. But the groin injury, on top of a partially torn ACL that ended his high school career early, might cause concerns about his durability.
Injuries have been such a pressing issue for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Lynch over the past two seasons that the club fired its head athletic trainer Jeff Ferguson and strength coach Ray Wright. The 49ers recently hired Ben Peterson run the club’s medical and training staffs under one title in order to create more continuity than the previous staffers. Peterson’s evaluation of Bosa could wind up deciding if Bosa wears a 49ers helmet next fall.
Injuries aside, Shanahan said this week he’s had trouble in the past identifying defensive linemen in the past (which includes 2017 first-round pick Solomon Thomas, who hasn’t become a difference-making player with San Francisco during his two seasons).
“I’ve asked some of the best D-line coaches that I could ever imagine, and they say he’s a slam dunk, and he doesn’t make it,” Shanahan said. “And then it’s got another direction, too. Every story can contradict anything you say is the right answer … That’s why we over talk it, over think it, over do everything because you have to because there are so many variables.”
Other pass rushers – such as Josh Allen (Kentucky), Brian Burns (Florida State), Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) and Clelin Ferrell (Clemson) – could fill San Francisco’s needs.
Allen is widely considered a top-five prospect and is expected to test extremely well Sunday. He measured 6-foot-4 7/8 and 262 pounds with 33 1/2-inch arms, half an inch longer than Bosa’s. Allen logged 17 1/2 sacks last season for the Wildcats despite spending more time in coverage as a linebacker.
Still, most evaluators believe there’s a sizable talent gap between Bosa and Allen – and perhaps Bosa will tap into his disappointment from last fall to motivate him to make his mark early on in the pros.
“(My season) just got torn away from me,” he said. “It’s something that I’ll always think back to.”