Pro Football Focus recently ranked all 32 NFL teams’ front-seven defenses, and the San Francisco 49ers came in dead last. This isn’t a reflection of expectations, rather a result of what happened in 2016.
I chuckled a bit when I read Pro Football Focus‘ ranking of the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive front seven ranked dead last in a pre-2017 evaluation for each NFL team.
OK, I laughed a lot.
It’s crazy to think just how much the Niners invested in their defense over the past few seasons, especially up front. And this was all capped off by two first-round picks — defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster — in this year’s NFL Draft.
San Francisco 49ers
Despite these two players, along with returning veterans DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, PFF’s Louie Benjamin still couldn’t find reasons enough to boost San Francisco’s up-front defense any higher.
"The 49ers will be the darkhouse candidate for possibility of most improvement this year. They’ll be banking on rookies Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster, each first round picks, while San Francisco will also hope for a re-emerging season from edge defender Aaron Lynch. With the ageless veteran Elvis Dumervil and NaVorro Bowman guiding them, this team could be solid on the front seven. Key word, could, as we just don’t know yet."
Benjamin does point out the room for improvement and potential but also falls back on the “well see” note at the tail end of his assessment.
While this ranking might be a bit laughable, it’s almost entirely based on what happened under former defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil back in 2016.
49ers Must Overcome Stigma
The Niners set all kinds of records, defensively, last season. And all the wrong kinds franchises want to have.
Chief among these lowly marks were the 2,654 rushing yards given up — a full 371 more yards than the 31st-ranked Cleveland Browns.
A good chunk of this falls on the front seven. This group was marred by more than just a lack of impact playmakers. Remember, linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong were both lost early to season-ending injuries. Then Armstead was dealing with a shoulder issue before his 2016 campaign came to a close prematurely.
Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey wasn’t able to go until roughly halfway through the year as well, hurting the Niners interior run defense.
Depth was thin, injuries hurt and O’Neil’s scheme was far too complex for San Francisco to maximize its abilities.
All this led to the 49ers defense being regarded as one of the worst in NFL history. Despite the many changes between then and now, it’s still an association the Niners will have to overcome on the field.
A Simplified Scheme
Unlike O’Neil, now-defensive coordinator Robert Saleh brings aboard a style of defense similar to what he learned as an assistant under Gus Bradley with the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively.
Saleh won’t utilize the two-gap defense O’Neil had — essentially a “read and react” system forcing the Niners defenders to almost guess what was coming.
And they often guessed wrong.
Saleh’s one-gap approach is simplified and maximizes each player’s natural abilities. The old adage, “when you think, you stink” could possibly apply here in one way or another.
“There aren’t a lot of wrinkles or exotic components to the 49ers defense,” Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee wrote last June. “That’s by design. The system is meant to be simple so that the players can be as fast, as aggressive and as instinctive as possible.”
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Proven Commodities Plus Promising Investments
Benjamin is right about not knowing whether or not the 49ers can significantly improve upon last year’s blunder.
But if Benjamin were to focus his argument more towards projection, there are more than a few reasons to assume San Francisco’s front seven would be much higher than 32nd.
The team can expect a healthy Bowman and Armstead back. And while injuries can play into projections, nearly every team out there has to face this reality. It’s a slippery slope, in many ways.
The 49ers also added veteran EDGE Elvis Dumervil this offseason. While Dumervil shouldn’t be counted on to be an every-down player — he’s 33 years old — he immediately emerges as San Francisco’s No. 1 pass-rusher. Remember, he’s sitting on 99 career sacks.
And all those first-round investments from the past three years? Well, Armstead is probably the weakest among the bunch. And that’s not a mark against Armstead. He did, after all, rank second in pass-rush productivity over the last two seasons, per PFF:
While Thomas and Foster still have to prove their mettle at the NFL level, it’s safe to say the Niners are clearly improved already over last season.
The moves and player returns weren’t enough to convince Benjamin San Francisco made strides from dead last, but he should have all the reasons to move the 49ers up the boards quite a bit when the regular season actually starts.
For now, all he’s going on is what happened last year. And it’s up to the front seven to prove him wrong.