Is 49ers' defensive line stronger or weaker after 1st wave of free agency?

The Niners' D-line got stronger in some areas, weaker in others.

Javon Kinlaw, Arik Armstead, Kevin Givens, Clelin Ferrell of the San Francisco 49ers
Javon Kinlaw, Arik Armstead, Kevin Givens, Clelin Ferrell of the San Francisco 49ers / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

The 49ers already experienced plenty of serious free agency transactions involving their defensive line, which leave plenty of questions.

Despite the San Francisco 49ers having thrown plenty of serious assets at the position in recent years, the defensive line still remained a top priority for general manager John Lynch to address heading into 2024.

Considering the Niners were already pressed up against the salary cap entering the offseason, navigating how to add talent at an affordable cost was going to be a challenging proposition.

As such, the opening wave of NFL free agency was pretty tumultuous for Lynch and Co. And it was arguably the most impactful for San Francisco's D-line, which headlined the number of transactions the team experienced during (and leading up to) the opening day of the "legal tampering" period on Monday, March 11.

In short, the 49ers said goodbye to their longest-tenured player, defensive tackle Arik Armstead, in a cap-saving move after Armstead refused to accept a pay cut. Then, late on day one of free agency, backup defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw inked a one-year deal to join the New York Jets.

On the flip side, the Niners added two pass-rushers, veteran Leonard Floyd and Yetur Gross-Matos, to help give support to their All-Pro edge, Nick Bosa.

There are surely more transactions in the works, too.

However, is San Francisco's D-line better or worse after the initial round of free agency?

How the 49ers' D-line is better after opening NFL free agency moves

There's little doubt the 49ers needed edge-rushing help. For years, dating back to the failed experiment with Dee Ford in 2019, Lynch and Co. have sought out a No. 2 pass-rusher to pair with Bosa.

Ford's injuries got in the way, Arden Key and Charles Omenihu were both decent options who turned their brief Niners tenures into solid contracts elsewhere, Samson Ebukam was OK over two seasons, Drake Jackson hasn't panned out, while the trio of Clelin Ferrell, Randy Gregory and Chase Young were rotational options, at best, last season.

The latter three remain free agents, and the addition of both Floyd and Gross-Matos probably rules out the return of all but maybe one of those 2023 contributors.

Floyd, who'll turn 32 years old next season, has at least nine sacks in each of the last four seasons, including three with the Los Angeles Rams. Not much of a run-stopper, Floyd nevertheless has the experience and pedigree to suggest he can be a go-to situational pass-rusher who can replicate recent efforts if other teams are more focused on Bosa.

Gross-Matos, 26 years old, is the bigger hopeful after never having recorded more than 4.5 sacks in a single season, albeit for an underwhelming Carolina Panthers defense during that span.

Still, it's safe to suggest San Francisco's pass rush from the outside got a bit better and more proven after these opening waves.

How the 49ers' D-line is worse after NFL free agency kicked off

Losing Armstead is a tough blow. But it's understandable.

Injuries cut Armstead's 2022 campaign in half and limited him significantly last season, too. However, while not always showing up on the stat sheet, Armstead was one of the more valuable members of the 49ers' D-line, particularly against the run and as someone who'd help set up success for outside rushers like Bosa.

His absence will be tough to make up. Plus, with Kinlaw gone, the Niners' interior depth is extremely limited and will need some serious attention for the rest of the offseason.

San Francisco was reportedly in the running for now soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who rebuffed the 49ers in favor of the silver and black. Had he signed with the Niners instead of Vegas, Armstead's departure wouldn't have been anywhere as serious.

But Wilkins didn't join the Niners, and that's a void.

Considering the Niners' primary weakness on defense last season was against the run, not having a proven interior run-stopper who can play on pass-rushing downs is potentially problematic. Sure, fellow defensive tackle Javon Hargrave remains present, but there's a notable void next to him.

In that regard, San Francisco's D-line is worse off than it was before.

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