SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers doubled down on their hefty investment in the defensive line this offseason in hopes it will raise the level of play of the entire unit.
The Niners used the second overall pick in the draft on defensive end Nick Bosa after adding Dee Ford in a big-ticket acquisition earlier in the offseason. With Bosa and Ford added to a position group led by DeForest Buckner and two other recent first-round picks, expectations are high that a defense that struggled making big plays a year ago can deliver this season.
“Our front has a chance to be special. They know it,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Wednesday. “With great expectations usually people rise to the level of those expectations. It’s like telling an offense to get by without a good quarterback. Our front is everything. It starts with the front. It’s a big man’s game. Big men usually win, talented big men anyway.”
Few teams have invested more capital into acquiring talented defensive linemen than the 49ers have lately. They drafted Arik Armstead with the 17th overall pick in 2015, Buckner seventh in 2016 and then Solomon Thomas with the third selection in 2017. San Francisco became the first team in more than 40 years to use three top 10 picks on defensive linemen in a four-year span.
While Armstead and Thomas have failed to make a big impact so far, Buckner went to the Pro Bowl last year after getting a career-high 12 sacks.
Now add Bosa and Ford, a first-rounder for Kansas City in 2014, and the Niners should have one of the deepest defensive line groups in the NFL.
“Great rushers complement,” said new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. “Any time you have multiple or three or four, the pass rush gets stronger and stronger, and the more resources the other team has to allocate to those guys to stop them from getting to the quarterback.”
Along with the two new edge rushers, the other big change on the line was the addition of Kocurek, who brings a more aggressive mentality and the wide-nine alignment to San Francisco that the team hopes will help generate more pressure off the edge.
Kocurek likes to position a speed rusher in a wide-nine alignment where he will be positioned well outside the tackle and tight end to offer better containment in the run game and a better angle to rush the passer.
The 49ers expect all the changes will upgrade a defense that set records for futility last year with seven takeaways and two interceptions. San Francisco made few additions in the secondary beyond the signing of oft-injured cornerback Jason Verrett, but is counting on more pressure leading to an increase in quarterback mistakes and takeaways.
“Rush and coverage always work together,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “The best years I’ve had in this league we’ve had a rush that substantially affected the quarterback. Any time you have linemen in your face, you never feel you can step through your throws like you want to. The coordinator doesn’t feel comfortable calling deep routes like he wants to. It all works together.”
The 49ers managed to generate pressure a year ago even without a dominant edge rusher. The Niners ranked eighth in the league with 180 quarterback pressures, according to SportRadar, and had the seventh-highest pressure rate at 29%. San Francisco was unable to turn that pressure into big plays, with the team ranking tied for 25th in the league with 36 sacks and struggling to generate takeaways.
Saleh said those pressure rates were a bit deceiving because the Niners weren’t able to force opposing coordinators to call more quick-hitting passes that are easier for the secondary to defend, and they allowed the quarterback the time to go to his second and third options.
“When an offense changes the way they approach us and the way they attack us, then I’ll know we’re getting pressure on the quarterback,” he said. “Even though our pressure rate may be high, the routes we were seeing were longer developing.”
That’s where Ford and Bosa come in. Ford had a career-high 13 sacks last season and led the NFL with seven forced fumbles, but was deemed expendable by Kansas City, which was implementing a new defense under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Niners dealt a 2020 second-round pick to the Chiefs for Ford and gave him a five-year, $87.5 million contract.
The team didn’t stop there, drafting Bosa with the second overall pick after a stellar career at Ohio State. Bosa missed most of last season with an injury and is already sidelined this offseason by a balky hamstring, but is being counted on for big things by the Niners.
“For us it’s just taking it personal at this point,” safety Jaquiski Tartt said. “We have to take everything personal. We can be a top-five defense. We have the pieces. This year we have to show that.”