Can the 49ers’ already prolific pass rush be even more dangerous in 2020?
The San Francisco 49ers boast plenty of strengths heading into the upcoming season and didn’t have a lot of roster voids after narrowly missing out on a Super Bowl victory just a few months ago.
Yet arguably the strongest group on the roster is the team’s defensive line, specifically the pass-rushers, who combined for a total of 48 sacks in 2019, which was tied for fifth best in the league. And while the total numbers might not be tops last year, the combined efforts from a number of key weapons up front have convinced many the Niners boast the best pass rush heading into 2020.
That’s what happens when a team invests first-round NFL Draft picks for the D-line in five of the last six years.
It hasn’t always been perfect. San Francisco’s 2015 addition, defensive tackle Arik Armstead, took four seasons to hit his stride before finally leading the team with 10 sacks in 2019. The 49ers’ top pick in the 2017 draft, defensive end Solomon Thomas, has just six career sacks to his total.
For the most part, though, the Niners investments have paid off handsomely. And even though the team is no longer boasting Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who was traded off to the Indianapolis Colts during the offseason, the hope is his replacement, South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, fills the void adequately enough.
Kinlaw is one reason why fans should be excited about the prospects for improvement from San Francisco’s pass rush in 2020, especially according to Pro Football Focus, who recently ranked the Niners’ pass-rushers No. 1 heading into the new season:
"There is a reason Kinlaw was listed as our top interior pass-rusher in the class. Kinlaw doesn’t just have the freakish tools that NFL teams covet, but he also has a track record of elite pass-rushing production in the SEC."
Kinlaw enters arguably the best possible situation for a rookie defensive lineman, joining some already-prolific pass-rushers who’ll look to make this unit even formidable.
Identifying the 49ers’ pass-rushing strategy
A four-man pass rush is one of the best ways to free up the seven other players on the field to handle coverage duties if it’s done correctly.
For San Francisco, an elite four-man front armed with five former first-round picks helped create a potent pass rush without having to blitz an extra defender or two. Last year, the Niners blitzed 20.9 percent of the time on passing snaps, which was fourth least in the NFL, yet the sack totals speak for themselves without having to scheme pressure.
It also helps explain why the 49ers boasted the league’s best passing defense, as coverage linebackers like Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw were able to drop back instead of shadowing close to the line of scrimmage.
This isn’t a new theory to San Francisco, and it’s not hard to find the parallels with the frequent four-man pass rushes former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio used to engineer between 2011 and 2014.
Why 49ers pass rush could be even stronger in 2020
There are a few X-factors to wonder about here. Armstead finally had his career year in 2019, which prompted the front office to sign him to a five-year extension. One can fairly wonder if Armstead’s spike in production — he never had more than three sacks in a single season before — was just an anomaly, but it’s also fair enough to assume he’s finally hit his mark and should come close to replicating those efforts again this season.
Bosa, who managed nine sacks en route to being named the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, should only see his stock value increase. Especially for those who believe players make their biggest leaps from years one and two at the pro level.
Perhaps the biggest wonder, however, is with Ford.
Knee and hamstring injuries hindered the former Kansas City Chiefs EDGE to a mere 11 games played and only 6.5 sacks, thereby prompting questions whether or not giving up a second-round draft pick to acquire him was worthwhile.
Ford recently had surgery to clean up his knee, and the prognosis is for him to return this season at 100 percent. That’s great news, especially when considering Ford’s prolific 2018 campaign in which he had a career-high 13 sacks and league-high seven forced fumbles.
If Ford comes anywhere close to that kind of production in 2020, it’ll spell plenty of problems for the teams San Francisco faces.
The arrow on Ford and Bosa are pointing upwards. Armstead is a key factor, too. And even if he doesn’t reach double-digit sacks this season, his mere presence could help spark the remainder of this unit.
Don’t count out Kinlaw’s potential either.
When looking at this group as a whole, it’s not hard to understand why folks like PFF are bullish on the unit. And it also helps explain why the 49ers were adamant about using top draft investments to build what’s becoming one of the most formidable defensive fronts in the league.