49ers ‘keep or dump’ decisions on defensive starters for 2022

Josh Norman #26, Fred Warner #54 and Azeez Al-Shaair #51 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Josh Norman #26, Fred Warner #54 and Azeez Al-Shaair #51 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /
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James Conner, Samson Ebukam, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers
Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) against San Francisco 49ers defensive end Samson Ebukam (56) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

49ers Defensive Line

Initially projected to be San Francisco’s strongest unit, injuries and underperformance have generally limited this group to one player making massive efforts, EDGE Nick Bosa, and defensive tackle Arik Armstead doing a lot of the dirty work.

Certainly some challenging decisions here.

Defensive End Nick Bosa: Keep

Easy choice here. Bosa is the 49ers’ leading sack specialist with 11 sacks, and he also leads the entire NFL with 16 tackles for a loss. He’s going to be due a massive contract extension that could make him the league’s top-paid defensive player.

Defensive Tackle Arik Armstead: Keep

The stat geeks out there will point out how Armstead only has 32 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss, which would otherwise suggest the Niners made the mistake extending him and not retaining fellow defensive tackle DeForest Buckner back in 2020.

Yet Armstead does a lot of the work in the trenches that won’t go noticed by many a casual fan, and San Francisco would be on the hook for $16.5 million in dead money if it moved on from him this offseason anyway.

Defensive Tackle D.J. Jones: Dump

This is quite the tough choice here. Nose tackle D.J. Jones has been a quality part of the 49ers defensive line since being a day-three NFL Draft pick way back in 2017. And while he’s dealt with a number of injuries over the years, when he’s been available, the Niners defensive line has been better with Jones in the fray.

The problem, though, is Jones is again going to be a free agent in 2022 after returning on a one-year deal, and nose tackles are generally easy to find on the cheap, either in free agency or via the draft. Plus, San Francisco has watched Jones’ primary backup, Kevin Givens, develop into a quality player the last two years, and Givens is going to be a fully controlled exclusive-rights free agent next year.

Givens is the cheaper, easier option.

Defensive End Samson Ebukam: Dump

The 49ers are going to need to identify yet another complementary pass-rusher to Bosa this offseason, especially if they’re planning to move on from oft-injured EDGE Dee Ford, technically not a starter but a situational pass-rusher, whose once-massive contract was reworked into a short-term deal allowing an easier out in 2022.

Last offseason, the idea for the Niners was to make former Los Angeles Rams EDGE Samson Ebukam that guy, inking him to a two-year, $12 million contract. Through 12 weeks, though, Ebukam has been an utter disappointment, registering just one sack and two tackles for a loss and coming nowhere close to even getting that four- or five-sack number to suggest he’s a good part of the pass-rush rotation.

With a dead-money hit of $1.75 million in 2022, generating a cap savings of $6.5 million, it’s probably best for San Francisco to admit the mistake and move on.