49ers 2021 ‘Who is?’ series: Samson Ebukam has void to fill

San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Samson Ebukam (56) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Samson Ebukam (56) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers needed a complementary pass-rusher to pair with Nick Bosa, and they’re hoping free-agent pickup Samson Ebukam can fit the need.

In an ideal world, the San Francisco 49ers wouldn’t have needed to sign former Los Angeles Rams EDGE Samson Ebukam as a free agent this offseason.

No, the perfect scenario would be to fully get the prolific tandem of edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford out there on the field for the entirety of 2021.

Sadly enough, though, nothing of the sort came to fruition last year. Bosa was sidelined in Week 2 with a season-ending ACL, while Ford missed all but Week 1 with a serious back injury that jeopardizes his status heading into the upcoming season. As a direct result, the Niners plummeted in sack production from 48 during their Super Bowl 2019 campaign all the way to 30 sacks a year ago.

And it says something when an intended backup lineman, now-Seattle Seahawks EDGE Kerry Hyder, led the team with 8.5 sacks. Not Bosa or Ford.

Bosa is expected back fully healthy this season. But Ford, who only played 22 percent of defensive snaps in 2019 anyway despite registering 6.5 sacks, is an X-factor who might miss the entirety of the upcoming year.

Hence why San Francisco grabbed Ebukam when his rookie contract ran out.

Ebukam has a lot of promise, yes, but he was also little more than a situational pass-rusher the last four years. So he’ll be asked to assume a role he hasn’t necessarily been tasked with before.

Whether or not he can is the subject of Niner Noise’s next “Who is?” installment.

Why Samson Ebukam breaks out with 49ers in 2021

Ebukam, the Rams’ fourth-round pick of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Eastern Washington, just turned 26 years old and has one factor working in his favor over Ford: health.

To date, Ebukam has yet to miss a regular-season game over his four-year career, and he also managed to be a full-time starter in both the 2018 and 2020 seasons, seeing 69 and 36 percent of defensive snaps those two years, respectively.

Last year, playing just over a third of defensive snaps, Ebukam’s sack and quarterback hit totals suggest he could possibly break out during his first year with the 49ers:

Samson Ebukam Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/14/2021.

As was the case with the Rams, Ebukam won’t have to be the guy in San Francisco, as that task will still fall on Bosa and, to a lesser extent, fellow linemen like Javon Kinlaw and Arik Armstead.

This should free up Ebukam for some more one-on-one matchups, where he can use his impressive 4.50 40-yard time at his pro day to win some speed-rushing opportunities.

If anything, Ebukam’s speed element is going to be what turns him into a prolific force with the Niners, and it’s an element they sorely missed a year ago.

Why Samson Ebukam struggles with 49ers in 2021

At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, some have argued Ebukam is more of a tweener, not twitchy or explosive enough to be a standup outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment and not necessarily big enough to overpower blockers from a hand-in-the-dirt 4-3 defensive end.

On top of that, there’s some concern why Ebukam never truly broke out during his time in LA where he also wasn’t asked to handle a prolific role.

The 2020 Rams still boasted a perennial All-Pro defensive lineman in Aaron Donald, and EDGE Leonard Floyd was their primary outside pass-rusher. Some may argue San Francisco’s D-line is just as formidable, if not more so than that of Los Angeles, so perhaps it’s just a case of Ebukam needing to come into his own.

Yet if that’s an argument, it’s just as safe to view Ebukam as he is: a decent depth pass-rusher but not someone who can be asked to fill a key role on an every-down basis.

Projected role, impact with 49ers in 2021

The 49ers signed Ebukam to a two-year, $12 million deal during the offseason, which isn’t cheap but could be considered a bargain for a player who emerges as a No. 2 outside pass-rusher.

That’s the hope from the Niners’ vantage point, at least, and they’re hoping he can line up as a strong-side rusher working primarily against weaker offensive tackles and undersized tight ends en route to the pocket.

Meanwhile, Bosa will primarily be tasked with rushing from the weak side of the formation.

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At this point, any snaps from Ford would have to be considered a mere bonus, and it’s likely Ebukam goes from a player seeing no more than 50 percent of the defense’s snaps to someone who could be out on the field up to 60 or even 70 percent of the time.

Talk about an increased role.

As far as production goes, San Francisco would be thrilled if he could deliver somewhere in the range of six to nine sacks over the course of the season, taking advantage of those one-on-one matchups he’s likely to experience in the wake of Bosa returning.

The reality, though, probably speaks closer to the five sacks Ebukam was shadowing the last two seasons, which would still be good enough for a situational pass-rusher and someone not tasked with being the primary player along the defensive line.

Fans can understandably hope for the former with Ebukam having a breakout-type season in 2021.

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