49ers’ Defense: Bubble
DL Kevin Givens
DL Jordan Willis
LB Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles
CB Darqueze Dennard
CB Dontae Johnson
S Jarrod Wilson
Again, not a particularly long list, but a group of players who may have already been replaced via free agency or are likely to see that happen during the draft.
This is true mostly in the defensive backfield, where veterans like Darqueze Dennard and the ever-present Dontae Johnson (who was actually a key player in San Francisco’s playoff run in 2021) could see themselves on the outside looking in. The same could be said for safety Jarrod Wilson, even though the strong safety role next to Jimmie Ward is currently wide open.
It mostly comes down to a youth movement that is clearly happening in that section of the field for the 49ers. Outside of Ward, the rest of the starters and key depth guys are all aged 25 or under, and if they add another young player in the draft, then some of these veterans are going to get the ax.
One thing is true: Never count out Johnson being part of San Francisco’s season in one way or another, but as of now, he’s firmly on the bubble.
Linebacker Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles has done well for himself as a special teamer the last few seasons, but the signing of Oren Burks tells you the 49ers brass felt it needed to upgrade there, meaning DFF’s days as a 49er are probably past him.
As for the defensive line options here, it may come down to a numbers game similar to the offensive line. Jordan Willis was the hero in the Niners’ recent playoff win over the Green Bay Packers, but if he gets beat out by Ebukam, Omenihu, or even a rookie selected in the early rounds of the draft, then the team improving for 2022 is what matters.
The same could be said for Kevin Givens, who has played well in spot duty but isn’t irreplaceable, especially if Arik Armstead continues to be a force on the inside and if Javon Kinlaw returns and makes an impact as the primary nose tackle.
This projection puts the 49ers roster at 41 players, including kicker Robbie Gould, punter Mitch Wishnowsky, and long-snapper Taybor Pepper, who are more than likely all returning. This leaves them 12 roster spots to fill, assuming all these locks make the team.
There’s a lot that could happen between now and when final roster cuts are due, which won’t be until after the preseason. But based on early returns, the Niners roster appears to be in pretty good shape heading into the 2022 NFL Draft and training camp.