The San Francisco 49ers have over 30 free agents and with Trent Williams possibly being the most important, the 49er defense has some serious questions. If the questions aren’t addressed, the 49ers franchise could be in trouble.
What the San Francisco 49er Defense Has to do to Get Back to Elite Form
The 2020 49er defense was good under unbearing circumstances, but it still didn’t match the level of play from their 2019 season. What separated the two defenses the most was the ability to pressure the Quarterback. In 2019, San Francisco’s defense was tied fifth in sacks with 48 compared to having 30 this past season. When you can’t pressure the Quarterback it hinders the whole defense.
It’s no secret the 49ers were hobbled with injuries all year. Four defensive linemen ended up on injured reserved in 2020 alone. Nick Bosa is coming off an ACL injury that came with additional cartilage damage. Former number three pick in the draft Solomon Thomas tore his ACL just two plays after Bosa and will be a free agent in 2021. Dee Ford may not even return to football in 2021, as a recurring back injury popped back up last season. This leaves major questions for pass-rushers on the roster heading into next season.
The interior defensive line group may be the strongest on the defense other than the linebacker position. With D.J. Jones expected to test free agency after a career year, the remaining defensive tackles have shown potential.
— Xavier Dixon (@GOOBVILLE) February 14, 2021
The 49ers replacing DeForest Buckner in the 2020 draft with Javon Kinlaw showed the trust in Kinlaw. Kinlaw may have started out slow, but his Week 10 performance showed the All-Pro potential. Kevin Givens was given a rotational role this past season and showed he could be disruptive.
I made my case for the Niners to resign Kerry Hyder, but he is just one of six defensive linemen slated for free agency. Hyder is a key rotational player if he can return, as he led the 2020 49er defense in sacks, tackles for loss, quarterback hits, and pressures. Depth on the defensive line was key in 2019 and if the 49er defense can’t reciprocate that, then the defense will be nowhere near elite.
With the limited cap space, the 49ers may have to draft a pass-rusher with a couple of their picks. Names 49er fans could see are Kwity Paye, Joseph Ossai, and Quincy Roche. San Francisco needs a quick edge rusher to compliment Bosa, they could also turn to free agency for names like Carl Lawson, Jordan Jenkins, and Olivier Vernon.
Tremendous analysis from Tony Romo on why he thinks Fred Warner is the best linebacker in the NFL.
"He's smart, tough, knows the game, can run, great hands, instinct, blah blah blah…" pic.twitter.com/a3m7glXhSx
— KNBR (@KNBR) October 26, 2020
Tony Romo called Fred Warner the best linebacker in football and I don’t think many people will disagree. Warner led all linebackers in All-Pro voting in 2020 and is due for a big-time contract anytime now. It is key for Warner to keep up the high-level play if he wants the 49er’s defense to return to elite form.
The 49ers have tremendous faith in Dre Greenlaw, as they traded away Kwon Alexander without hesitation. Greenlaw showed in 2019 that he could have a big impact as he made the division-winning tackle against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17. And he kept the progression going this past season, having one of the lowest missed tackle rates in the league at 4.4%. Greenlaw will be key in taking this defense to the elite level.
John Lynch has a lot on his plate with the cornerback position, Lynch only has three cornerbacks signed currently. Tim Harris, Adonis Alexander, and Ken Webster (the three active cornerbacks) have a staggering 22 career defensive snaps combined, with Alexander not playing since 2018 and all three of them mainly playing special teams. For the 49er defense to become elite, Lynch will have to make some key decisions for the cornerback group.
Emmanuel Mosley is a restricted free agent and is expected to be brought back for 2021. The Greensboro native emerged as a starter in 2019 and proved he was a solid player as he led the 49er defense in pass defections in the 2019 playoffs while adding an interception. Mosley was hobbled by a concussion in 2020, in his return struggled against DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams, but they are All-Pro receivers. If retained Mosley will be key to the defense trending up.
Jason Verrett played 13 games in 2020.
He allowed fewer than 40 yards receiving in 9 of those games.
— Coach Yac 🗣 (@Coach_Yac) February 6, 2021
Jason Verrett is one of the more important Free Agents on the 49er roster, as he took lead as the best cornerback on the team in 2020. With the likelihood of losing Sherman, the need for an outside corner is essential. Verrett was graded out as a top ten corner in the league and if the 49er defense wants to get back to 2019 form, retaining Verrett is paramount.
K’Waun Williams: Lockdown Nickel CB🔒
• Led #49ers in FF (4) & 2nd in INT’s (2)
• No. 2 in #NFL in passer rating allowed vs slot receivers (PFF)
• Slot Coverage Grade: 76.5(t-4th) (PFF) pic.twitter.com/ctvtYDVaz2
— Coach Yac 🗣 (@Coach_Yac) May 10, 2020
If Verrett and Mosley can be retained, the 49ers will have to address the nickel corner position. K’Waun Williams only allowed one touchdown, including playoffs in the 2019 season. But multiple injuries limited Williams in 2020, as he played career-low 284 defensive snaps – the 49ers will likely let Williams walk as his asking price won’t be affordable.
Regardless of Mosley and Verrett’s comeback, the 49ers HAVE to draft a corner. Names like Patrick Surtain may be around at their 12th pick. Guys like Rodarius Williams, Paulson Adebo, and Kary Vincent Jr. should be available in later rounds if they choose not to pick a corner early.
After being named an AP All-Pro in 2019, Richard Sherman only played 32 percent of the 49er defensive snaps in 2020. Having such a low cap space already, Sherman’s asking price will likely be too high for the 49ers. As he said himself that he’s not likely to return, the 49er’s defense could move in a better direction with more youth on the field.
The Safety group could use some tweaking like the cornerback position, but the 49ers at least have a returning player in Jimmie Ward. Ward’s versatility is essential to the 49er defense going to the next level, as he can line up and guard any position.
Marcell Harris is expected to be brought back like Mosley, as a restricted free agent. Harris struggled a bit in coverage allowing a 137.5 pass rate when targeted and registered a 40.6 overall grade from pff. But he also tied the lead of the 49er defense with two forced fumbles accompanied by Jimmie Ward. Harris will likely compete for a starting spot if brought back but will need tremendous improvement if he wants to impact the defense.
— Xavier Dixon (@GOOBVILLE) February 14, 2021
Tarvarius Moore had the potential game-winning interception in Super Bowl 50 but regressed in 2020. Moore allowed the highest completion percentage when targeted (75%) of any defensive back on the 49er defense. Entering the final year of his contract, Moore like Harris will have to improve tremendously to have an impact.
With Jaquiski Tartt expected not to return, the 49ers will have to turn to the draft and free agency for a difference-maker at the safety position. The 49ers could look at the former second-team All-Pro Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as a cheap option after shockingly getting cut before the season and not getting picked up after. Keanu Neal, D.J. Swearinger, and Erik Harris are also cheaper options they could get in free agency.
Jared Mayden, an Alabama graduate could shock people and earn a starting position in training camp. But names like Caden Sterns, Hamsah Nasirildeen, and Damar Hamlin are likely names the 49ers will target in the draft, as they are all projected to be drafted around the third or fourth round.
Defense Wins Championships
All in all, the 49er defense can get back to elite levels if they can reciprocate defensive line depth, retain Mosley and Verettt plus draft a corner and make a move at a safety. It may sound like a lot, but it’s quite simple if the San Franciso 49ers want to have an elite defense again.