49ers’ most notable moves of the offseason
The 49ers came into the offseason having already used three first-round draft picks along the defensive line in the previous four years. Yet coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch needed more out of the front four, which led to pouring even more resources into the position.
Those investments were premium. Rolls-Royce premium.
Defensive end Nick Bosa, the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft, became the team’s highest-drafted player on a roster that already includes top-10 selections such as DeForest Buckner (No. 7 in 2016), Solomon Thomas (No. 3 in 2017) and Mike McGlinchey (No. 9 in 2018). Pass rusher Dee Ford, acquired in a trade with the Chiefs in March, became the team’s highest-paid defender, inking a five-year, $85 million contract, tied for the sixth-largest contract among NFL edge rushers.
Shanahan and Lynch, essentially, were doubling down on the roster’s strength, hoping it can elevate the defense back toward playoff relevancy in what is a pressure-packed season for their tenures. It’s easy to see the logic, given the team’s mediocre pass rush of late. But there’s a steep transition ahead, which is one of the team’s most important developments of the offseason not involving quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who is coming back from September’s devastating ACL tear.
The 49ers shook up their personnel significantly while also making a sizable adjustment to their scheme, meaning there’s plenty of work to be done before the season begins.
The transition revolves around new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, a high-energy former pupil of respected Eagles coordinator Jim Schwartz, who helped popularize “Wide 9” formations that ask defensive ends to line up farther outside opposing tackles. That means Bosa and Ford will pin their ears back to set the edge against the run and, more importantly, get up-field to rush opposing quarterbacks.
Generally, the new alignments isolate offensive tackles in space, allowing the defensive ends to showcase their athleticism with more room on the field.
“I’m not afraid to say they’re better athletes than I am,” McGlinchey said after his second practice of OTAs going up against the new-look group. “It’s not just a Wide 9 where they’re sprinting up the field. They’re setting the edge with physicality. So it’s just a matter of playing with force and keeping your eyes where they need to be. It’s definitely going to be a nice little challenge with the athletes that we have on the outside.”
McGlinchey got his first up-close look against Ford in the loss last September in Kansas City, and got an even better idea of what to expect from the 2018 Pro Bowler at a team charity golf outing in March in Carmel. There, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh spoke with donors and broke down Chiefs film looking at what to expect from Ford in the new defense. It opened McGlinchey’s eyes to the possibilities.
“I don’t sit and listen to defensive coaches talk about football,” he said, “and I got to sit and listen to Saleh and one of his highlights is how Dee is just going to create space for people. I think a huge example of that was last year in Kansas City. They had Chris Jones. He came away with (15.5) sacks last year and I think a lot of that has to do with who he was paired with on the outside.”
Jones was a beneficiary of the magnetism created by Ford and Justin Houston on the outside, creating more favorable matchups along the interior as they combined for 22 sacks. The 49ers envision a similar effect that could allow Buckner, Thomas and Arik Armstead to thrive up the middle, covering up weaknesses that still live in the secondary.
“DeForest is as special as it gets when it comes to playing defensive line in this league,” McGlinchey said, “and now that he’s got somebody that takes away double and triple teams, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch those two get to work.”
Jones and Buckner are both tall, athletic defensive tackles that use more than their strength to beat offensive linemen. Buckner is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2018 following his career-best 12 sacks in 2018, and they came without much production coming from San Francisco’s defensive ends. Ford and Bosa’s ability to speed rush past tackles should force quarterbacks to step up into the pocket, where Buckner lurks, while also helping Buckner avoid constant double teams.
“Big dudes that can move like that are special,” Ford said. “(Jones) and Buck, and Arik, phenomenal athletes to be that size. It’s impressive to watch.”
The new alignments don’t only affect the defensive line. The team’s linebackers are in for a schematic makeover, particularly in base downs. The principles from the past two seasons called for the “Sam” linebacker to line up on the line of scrimmage, making him responsible for setting the edge.
The new design pulls that linebacker off the line of scrimmage to the second level of the defense, giving the 49ers a more traditional 4-3 look. It makes the linebacker spots more interchangeable and less specialized. It’ll be the defensive ends’ jobs to siphon ball carriers back inside.
“They’re all the same bodies now,” Shanahan said.
Second-year pro Fred Warner is expected to remain the signal-caller at middle linebacker while free-agent addition Kwon Alexander is expected to play the coverage “Will” linebacker spot on the weakside. Veteran Malcolm Smith and special teams standout Mark Nzeocha are playing the other outside linebacker spot. Rookie fifth-round pick Dre Greenlaw has gotten work at all three spots this offseason because Warner (knee scope) and Alexander (ACL tear) are rehabbing injuries.
The 49ers seem optimistic about what the new-look front seven can bring while the secondary is largely returning the same group that struggled throughout 2018, sans new cornerback Jason Verrett, who should be the favorite to start opposite Richard Sherman, should he come back healthy following a torn Achilles last summer.
But having high expectations isn’t a new development for the 49ers, who were a trendy playoff pick entering last season after winning the final five games of 2017 after adding Garoppolo via trade with the Patriots. The defensive line is relishing the idea of carrying the team back toward contention.
“We kind of love it,” Thomas said of the heightened expectations. “We’re excited for this year. ... Everyone in the room has a chance to contribute and be great … that’s our goal and that’s what we’re trying to do every day.”