San Francisco 49ers

49ers roster moves indicate they still covet pass rushers after adding Dee Ford

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Cassius Marsh (54) against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Los Angeles.
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Cassius Marsh (54) against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Los Angeles. AP

49ers General Manager John Lynch wouldn’t tip his hand when asked this week about how the addition of former Chiefs pass rusher Dee Ford will impact San Francisco’s approach to the upcoming NFL Draft.

“Having Dee just makes us a better football team, and the draft’s something separate,” Lynch said Thursday as Ford was officially introduced to Bay Area reporters. “Yes, those two do interact at some point, but we’ll see. We’re going to go out there and look. At number two you want to have a great football player. That’s what we’re looking for and we’ll see where it ends up.”

NFL power brokers are typically tight-lipped leading up to the draft, so it was no surprise Lynch was keeping his cards close to the chest. Perhaps a better indicator of how the 49ers will approach the draft came Friday when the team released last year’s featured pass rusher off the edge, Cassius Marsh.

“Sad to part ways but business is business,” Marsh wrote on social media. “I promise you I will be better than I ever have been.”

Marsh in 2018 had 5.5 sacks with 4.5 coming in two games against the Raiders and Bears late in the season. He played roughly 51 percent of the defensive snaps throughout the campaign working primarily as a defensive end in pass rushing situations, which is how San Francisco is expected to use Ford after signing him to a five-year, $87.5 million contract earlier this week.

The 49ers were widely expected to consider using the No. 2 overall selection in the draft on another pass rusher off the edge, such as Nick Bosa (Ohio State) or Josh Allen (Kentucky). Moving on from Marsh does nothing to quell that speculation. Ford, after all, had his best season with Kansas City last year logging 13 sacks while complementing Justin Houston, who had nine sacks playing on the other side of the formation, and defensive tackle Chris Jones, who led the team with 15.5 sacks.

Marsh didn’t improve San Francisco’s pass rush in a significant way over the past two seasons after being acquired off waivers from the New England Patriots late in 2017. Ford is expected to provide a noticeable upgrade which should help the team’s glut of former first-round draft picks along the interior of the defensive line, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas.

“I know I saw a big smile from all of our inside rushers because they know what an edge guy can do for the group collectively. Now we’ve got to go do it,” Lynch said. “... We really improved our chances of being effective in those aspect of the game with the addition of Dee.”

Other edge defenders currently on the roster include four-year pro Ronald Blair, who quietly put together a solid 2018 season with five sacks in a reserve role, Dekoda Watson and Pita Taumoepenu. Thomas and Armstead have also been used along the edges in varying capacities.

Nzeocha to return on three-year deal

The 49ers are bringing back linebacker Mark Nzeocha, 29, on a three-year contract, the team announced Friday. The native of Bavaria, Germany, endeared himself to San Francisco over the past two seasons for his ability to play inside and outside linebacker while contributing on special teams.

Nzeocha this season is expected to compete with veteran Malcolm Smith for the starting “Sam” linebacker job and remain a key player in kick and punt coverage.

The 49ers on Friday also announced a one-year deal for reserve safety Antone Exum Jr., who will compete for a roster spot and special teams role after starting seven games last season due to a laundry list of injuries at the position. San Francisco decided to bring back their own pending free agents, Exum and Jimmie Ward, rather than spend on a new high-priced free safety on the free agent market.