The 49ers have finally done it. It was long, and it was definitely not easy, but San Francisco, in a span of 5 years, just created the NFL’s next potential defense of the decade. This may be a very optimistic and premature statement, but by the end of the 2019 season, the San Francisco 49ers front seven will be the backbone for a top 5-10 defense in the NFL, and you heard it here first.
In order to better understand the reasoning behind this claim, we must take a closer look at the 49ers front office’s approach and mentality through previous drafts and free agency periods. Let’s begin this tale at the end of a very disappointing 2014 season, where San Francisco was expected to make the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Here are their free agency transactions for 2015, with respect to arrivals and departures in their front-7.
The reason I begin my tale of the 49ers’ defensive rebuild at the end of the 2014 season is because San Francisco significantly underwhelmed based on their expectations, especially on defense. Considered a playoff darling during the preseason, the 49ers were expected to go at least 10-6. However, their poor play in Jim Harbaugh’s final season along with injuries to key players left the 49ers at an 8-8 record. After the season, future Hall-of-Fame linebacker Patrick Willis called it quits after a toe injury sidelined him for the season. With NaVorro Bowman already missing the entire 2014 season nursing an ACL injury suffered in the 2013-14 playoffs, the 49ers had to rely on rookie Chris Borland to lead the injured 49ers defense, and he showed flashes of All-Pro potential on the field. However, Borland retired in 2015 after a head injury ended his season, and CTE concerns led him to leave the NFL after a spectacular rookie season. Veteran stalwart Justin Smith also retired after the 2014 season as Father Time and injuries caught up to him, leaving a huge gap in the 49ers front-7. Furthermore, 2012 NFC Defensive Player of the Year Aldon Smith was released in August of 2015 for yet another DUI arrest, questioning the status of the 49ers defense as competent, if not good, without their losses. GM Trent Baalke and new head coach Jim Tomsula aggressively sought after almost every available free agent to shore up the porous front-7. While every free agent San Francisco signed in the 2015 offseason was only an offseason or a practice squad member (with the exception of Nick Bellore), the 2015 office shows a concerted effort from the 49ers front office to rebuild the voids left in the front-7 in free agency. The 49ers management continued this approach in the 2015 NFL Draft, trying to do everything in their power to rebuild their defense.
Trent Baalke’s first round pick was eventually traded back two picks later, and the 49ers selected Oregon DE Arik Armstead. Armstead was highly recruited out of Oregon as a top-20 pick, and came in with the expectation of replacing the newly-retired Justin Smith. UVA edge rusher Eli Harold was drafted to be Aldon Smith’s replacement after a fruitful career with the Cavaliers, and Michigan State edge rusher Marcus Rush was signed as an undrafted rotational player to bolster the 49ers’ depth, however he was shockingly released after showing potential in the 2015 Preseason. Once again, the prior 49ers administration, despite its insane lack of cooperation, pooled draft capital into improving their front-7, and this would eventually foreshadow the approach of the succeeding 49ers front office in the near future.
The 49ers’ lone season under former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula led to a last place 5-11 finish in the NFC West. Tomsula was fired shortly after the season’s end, however stalwart middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman had by far his best season under Tomsula. Bowman’s All-Pro seasons further pushed the 49ers to build more and more pieces around its field general, as San Francisco’s front-7 was still awful, even with the additions of rookies Arik Armstead and Eli Harold, who didn’t make an immediate impact and under-performed, considering their expectations.
Prior to the 2016 NFL Draft, many expected new 49ers head coach Chip Kelly to draft Colin Kaepernick’s successor, especially with supreme talents like Carson Wentz from North Dakota State, Jared Goff from California, and Paxton Lynch from Memphis. NFL draft scouts and analysts expected either Goff or Wentz to fall to the 49ers, however the Rams and Eagles traded up for the top two spots and changed the narrative, with executives debating on whether Wentz or Goff should go #1 overall. At that time, Paxton Lynch was considered a huge reach for the 49ers at 7th overall. However, on Draft Day, the 49ers had the correct approach of taking the best player available. As Goff and Wentz were off the board within the first two picks, Ohio State DE and RB Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott went to the Chargers and Cowboys respectively. Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey, widely considered the best player in this draft class, was selected 5th overall by the Jaguars, and LT Ronnie Stanley from Notre Dame went 6th overall to the Ravens. Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke once again invested into their front-7 and drafted DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon. The 6″7 Buckner came out of Oregon and was heavily liked among many scouts as a top 3 prospect because of his raw athleticism, frame, and power. His best attribute, however, was his versatility, because Buckner could start at any spot on the defensive line due to his sheer athleticism. The 49ers also bolstered some depth by picking Ronald Blair II in the 5th round, and signed some undrafted free agents to fill in front-7 voids. While these undraftees did not last long on the team, this approach once again highlighted the 49ers’ approach to build a strong front 7 first, despite many needs in integral skill positions.
The 49ers’ lone season under Chip Kelly was nothing short of a tragedy. The 2016-17 season came to an end under a disastrous 2-14 record, with 0 Pro Bowlers and a last place finish in the NFC West. The only bright spot for the 49ers over the course of the entire 2016 NFL season was DeForest Buckner’s disruptiveness and success as an interior 3-technique defensive tackle in defensive coordinator Jim O’Neal’s 4-3 scheme. This dipping point led the 49ers ownership to fire head coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke, signaling the beginning of a new era. New leadership, new philosophies, and new management was necessary to save a once-contending sports franchise from becoming the butt of the NFL’s jokes. Even with Oregon DL Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, the 49ers’ front 7 was still a mess due to lack of production and aging linebackers. The 49ers quickly hired former Falcons offensive coordinator and genius Kyle Shanahan as the new head coach and former Buccaneers safety John Lynch as the new 49ers general manager. The release of Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman, the last two of the fearsome foursome linebacker corps of the 2011-2013 postseason runs, signaled the beginning of a rebuild and new players for the new era. However, Lynch quickly signed DT Earl Mitchell and outside linebackers Malcolm Smith and Brock Coyle to bolster the position for the near future, looking for a future answer at the mic to replace future Hall-of-Famers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
The 2017 NFL Draft was one of the best examples of head coach-general management cooperation. In the hours before the draft, Shanahan and Lynch, in their first draft, created a beautiful smokescreen to appeal to quarterback-needy teams in the top 10, and fleeced the Bears into trading up for top QB Mitch Trubisky from UNC. Prior to the draft, the 49ers once again were determined to bypass their needs for a quarterback in a QB-deficient class, and focusing on adding more talent to their front-7. Stanford DL Solomon Thomas was associated with San Francisco very early in the process, and the 49ers eventually got the player they wanted at #2 overall one pick later, while grabbing a boatload of picks from the Bears. However, Lynch wasn’t done, as he traded back into the first round and grabbed his mic linebacker of the future, in Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. Foster was a top-10 lock in the strong 2017 draft class during the 2016 regular season, because of his ability to hit and his insane speed and athleticism. His leadership was quite valued, and one could argue he was the most important players on the vaunted 2016 Alabama defense. The drafting of the small-school defensive linemen in the 6th round once again added depth and provided opportunities for rookies to strengthen depth on the front-7. Overall, this 2017 free agency and draft process foreshadowed great things for the 49ers front-7 in the near future, as the cooperation between Lynch and Shanahan signified great potential in San Francisco’s future roster after the rebuild.
The 2017-18 49ers season was disappointing to say the least, however one cannot say this was unexpected. Without talent in any major skill positions, San Francisco predictably struggled to a 6-10 record, and another last place finish in the NFC West under Kyle Shanahan’s first season. While DeForest Buckner kept balling out for absolutely no credit, rookie lineman Solomon Thomas severely underperformed based on how high he was selected. Many analysts barely mentioned his name due to his lack of production, and he did not make the All-Rookie team for 2017 unlike his teammate DeForest Buckner in 2016. However, a huge bright spot for the 49ers future was the play of mic linebacker Reuben Foster. Foster was the 4th highest graded linebacker in the 2017 season, according to Pro Football Focus. So while that may not mean much as an arbitrary number, it definitely showed that Foster had an unbelievable rookie season, at least for his position. The only linebackers graded higher than him were Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, the two best linebackers in this league, along with Lavonte David. Foster made a lot of impact plays with his ability to hit like a tank, and this remarkable rookie season left a lot of hope for 49ers fans on the potential of this front-7. However, even Foster’s unbelievable rookie season didn’t outdo the 49ers trading for and signing Jimmy Garoppolo in the 2018 offseason. Garoppolo won each of his last 5 starts, and his most famous one was a win against the vaunted 2017 Sacksonville defense, where the 49ers offense managed to score 44 points. So while the front-7 was constantly improving, there looked to be a green light at the end of the hopelessness tunnel for most of the 49ers fans, and they were looking more optimistic than ever, especially about building their franchise around Garoppolo.
The entire goal of the 2018 NFL Draft was to acquire young talent to build around Jimmy Garoppolo, the future of the 49ers franchise. So Shanahan and Lynch did so, spending their first two picks in the 2018 NFL Draft on Notre Dame OT Mike McGlinchey and Washington WR Dante Pettis to add more firepower to that talent-starved 49ers offense. However, this front office definitely did not forget their front-7 situation, with all of the scrutiny involving stalwart linebacker Reuben Foster and his clouded future with the team. So, to provide insurance at that mic linebacker position, the 49ers drafted underrated linebacker Fred Warner from BYU, eventually to pair with Foster as an incredible young linebacker tandem for the future. They also drafted some small-school defensive linemen, once again to address depth issues from past seasons. While some of these undrafted defensive linemen didn’t make the team, the 49ers management’s approach to try all methods to fix holes in their defensive front was quite prevalent.
The 2018-2019 49ers season was full of expectations. Some analysts expected the team to make the NFC Championship with their new influx of talent, while others called this team “criminally” overrated and expected them to miss the playoffs again. This season was similar to a dream being ruined after 3 seconds. Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3, and Reuben Foster’s persistent off-the-field issues were enough of a problem for the 49ers to release the next big thing at middle linebacker. The 49ers went through backups C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens for the rest of the regular season. Even with Garoppolo out, there were still bright spots on one of the most talent-deficient teams in football. 2017 5th rounder George Kittle broke out at tight end, setting the all-time single-season receiving record for a tight end. His freakish athleticism and running after catch abilities were showcased almost week in and week out. 2016 1st rounder DeForest Buckner finally got his deserved recognition and made the Pro Bowl for the first time.
The most incredible aspect of the 2018 season for the 49ers, however, was their Week 15 upset over the heavily-favored Seahawks. Buckner’s unblockability was on full display in that game, basically drawing holding penalties on every drive and pressuring Russell Wilson. The 49ers front truly showed its potential in that showing, and Lynch added two key starting pieces through trading a 2nd-round pick for Chiefs Pro Bowl DE Dee Ford, who broke out in the 2018 season after registering 13 sacks and leading the league with a whopping 7 forced fumbles in a contract year. To fix the void left at the mic linebacker position left in Reuben Foster’s release, San Francisco signed former Buccaneers star Pro Bowl linebacker Kwon Alexander to a 4 year, 54 million dollar contract. Now, this linebacker corps looks scary, especially with Alexander, Malcolm Smith, and Fred Warner in the new 4-3 defensive scheme. I also may have left something out when I mentioned the lack of production from Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead in their first few seasons. The main reason for this was because they were used completely incorrectly!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thomas in his first two seasons was flexed out at 4-3 defensive end due to a supposed lack of size, but when the 49ers experimented with him as a 4-3 DT, the disruptiveness and productivity skyrocketed. Armstead, among many 49ers fans, was widely considered the team’s best run defender. However, his overwhelming size would also help him adjust if he were playing as a 4-3 DT, in which he was fantastic in the latter end of the regular season. So, with all these players moving inside, how would the 49ers’ new defensive line look? As of right now, Buckner and Ford would be used in every package, regardless of running or passing downs. They generate 90% of the production for this defensive line, so they must be in every snap. The great part about having 3 defensive tackles is the fact that they can be rotated within sub-packages to whatever downs suit them. In the case of Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead, the former is a much better pass-rusher in a 4-3 defensive tackle slot while the latter is a freakishly athletic run defender inside as a 4-3 DT. So, this rotation of DTs for the 49ers could be downright scary because of their specialization. Even if Buckner needs a rest, Thomas and Armstead can play alongside one another as the two defensive tackles. This trio of elite Pac-12 defensive linemen does not mess around, and I think every opponent’s offensive line should fear running and passing the ball against them in 2019. However, there’s still a void left on that front opposite Pro Bowler Dee Ford, if only another edge player could be acquired to plug in that last whole, and create the monster that will be the 2019 San Francisco 49ers defensive front………
Good thing the 2019 NFL Draft is full of supreme defensive talent, especially alongside the defensive front. One might argue this is the greatest influx of defensive talent of all time, especially for 1 class. The 49ers have the 2nd pick, and there are multiple ways they could attack this. While Unanimous All-American Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams might be the best player in this draft class, I don’t really believe he would help the 49ers, as they are looking for a 4-3 DE rather than a versatile, schemeproof DT. LSU Butkus Award-winning middle linebacker Devin White is also intriguing, but with the signing of Kwon Alexander as the 49ers’ future mic linebacker, White really wouldn’t fit as an outside linebacker for this team. So that leaves Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary, and Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen on the 49ers’ draft board. Allen broke out his senior season at Kentucky, earning Unanimous All-American honors, however his talent would be restricted in San Francisco, as he is a much better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker due to his talent in coverage. Between Bosa and Gary, the choice is really tough. Honestly, one could not go wrong picking either player. However, with the 2nd pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers should select…..
I think Gary is the right person to finish the 49ers’ front-7 rebuild. He reminds me so much of Jadeveon Clowney from 2014, who was taken #1 overall for his freakish athleticism, and Gary is no different. While his most ideal position on defense is at 3-4 DE, Gary showed a lot of promise at 4-3 DE as well in his final season. A shoulder injury barred him from completely dominating college football in his junior season, and he needs to be drafted in the right environment in order to develop like Clowney did. Fortunately, this 49ers front doesn’t need him to produce right away, especially with Pro Bowl talents Kwon Alexander, DeForest Buckner, and Dee Ford to generate most of the heavylifting for this front. Gary can show flashes of disruptiveness and take his time to develop into the monster he will eventually be. While some critics argue that he wasn’t productive in his final season, Gary said himself,”Causing havoc isn’t on the stat sheet.” I completely agree with this statement, and I think his lack of development can be attributed to his lack of recognition as a dominant player from most scouts due to his inability to stuff the stat sheet.
My favorite part of Gary’s game is the athleticism he is gifted with. Not everyone can be a freak of nature like this, and I think Gary has god-gifted athleticism, and if he can make use of it, I think he can be even better than Jadeveon Clowney is now, especially with the surrounding pieces in that San Francisco defense, which will help him thrive. San Francisco doesn’t exactly need a ton of production from the edge, but they need a lot of athleticism and disruptive play, especially against the run, and that is Rashan Gary to a letter T. With this selection, the tale of the official San Francisco 49ers rebuild concludes, and I think this 49ers front-7 will be one of the best in the league in 2019, and the awesome part is, the 49ers front office built this monstrosity right under the NFL’s nose, and believe me, the rest of the NFL will pay for this very, very dearly.