Perhaps the biggest development with the 49ers’ defense in 2018 was the inability to take the ball from opponents. San Francisco broke NFL records for the fewest takeaways (seven) and interceptions (two).
It led to finishing with the league’s fifth-worst scoring defense, which played a significant role in ending with a 4-12 record and the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft.
Despite those struggles, San Francisco decided against making significant investments this offseason in its secondary, which often looked bewildered and overmatched. General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan instead poured resources into the pass rush, hoping an improved ability to bother opposing quarterbacks improves the defense to the point of playoff contention.
“We feel much better about our D-line,” Lynch said following the draft April 27. “Now we’ve got to go prove it. It’s there on paper. We feel like we’ve completed a lot of the things that we didn’t have. Now we’ve got to go become that force to be reckoned with where you’re there every week, and they know when they turn the tape on, ‘My goodness, we’d better get rid of this football. If not, we’re going to pay the price.’ That excites us.”
The key additions Lynch mentioned were Ohio State’s Nick Bosa with the No. 2 pick and trading for 2018 Pro Bowler Dee Ford, who was among the league’s best at pressuring quarterbacks off the edge and helping force turnovers. Ford was given a five-year, $85 million contract that includes $20.5 million in full guarantees, making him the team’s highest-paid defender.
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman this week agreed with his GM, noting the secondary should improve despite the group largely returning as is. Free agent Jimmie Ward was brought back on a modest one-year contract despite finishing four of his five NFL seasons on injured reserve with fractures. He’s expected to compete for the starting free safety job with Adrian Colbert after playing the bulk of last season at cornerback.
The 49ers signed former first-round pick Jason Verrett, another cornerback who’s coming off an Achilles’ tear and played in five games since 2016. He’ll compete with Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore for a starting job. Cornerback was also addressed in the sixth round with the addition of Virginia’s Tim Harris.
“I’m 100 percent good with (the secondary). I don’t think it’ll be an issue,” Sherman told The Bee on Monday following a speaking event for the Body Armor sports drink, in which Sherman is an investor. “The secondary wasn’t the issue last year. We’d lose games by a touchdown down the stretch, the last second. It’s not like, ‘Oh man, the secondary was just getting killed the whole game and that’s why we lost.’ It was just guys’ immaturity, mistakes, just not executing. Not knowing how to finish, not having finishers.”
Lynch and Shanahan would contend Bosa and Ford are the “finishers” the defense needs to elevate to the next level. They very well might be, if Verrett stays healthy and regains his Pro Bowl form with the Chargers in 2015 — and Ward, Witherspoon and Moore develop into reliable players.
But questions will arise about the secondary if it repeats 2018’s performance, particularly after the team didn’t bring in a veteran for the back end such as safeties Earl Thomas or Tyrann Mathieu, who signed lucrative contracts with the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs. The 49ers enter 2019 ranked fourth in the NFL with some $35 million in cap space remaining, according to Overthecap.com.
Sherman noted last season the team lacked the pass rush late in games to force mistakes, which could change now that Bosa and Ford are in the fold.
“We needed guys to hit (the quarterback) in the face,” Sherman said. “You need a few of them. Now we have guys that can rotate in and rotate out and put pressure. You have linebackers that they were looking for. Fred (Warner) is a year older, he’s not a rookie play caller anymore. I think that helps everybody. I’m much healthier. I was kind of out there on one leg.”
Sherman said he had sutures removed from his surgically repaired Achilles’ after the season that caused discomfort throughout 2018. He plans to be in a better position to contribute in his second full campaign removed from the career-altering injury.
The other big factor for San Francisco?
“Jimmy (Garoppolo),” Sherman grinned. “Jimmy will be out there.”