The 49ers have had a good history of turning around the careers of underperforming defensive linemen, and Clelin Ferrell could be next in line.
The San Francisco 49ers regularly invest major assets into their defensive line. In 2019, 2020 and 2022, their top pick in each NFL Draft was used on a defensive lineman. Additionally, highlighted by the 2023 free-agent signing of star defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, the Niners aren't afraid to spend big bucks to reinforce and upgrade the defensive front either.
All that said, San Francisco is also very interested in reclamation projects.
In previous seasons, the 49ers have helped turn careers around for linemen such as Arden Key, Kerry Hyder, Charles Omenihu and others who have capitalized on one-year stints under defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, turning them into substantial contracts elsewhere.
This year, the Niners' next reclamation project is a former top-four NFL Draft pick, former Las Vegas Raiders edge Clelin Ferrell.
Ferrell, the former Clemson standout whom the Raiders grabbed at No 4 overall in the 2019 draft, has largely been a disappointment over his first four years in the league. While there is no shortage of reasons why this is the case, the fact the 26-year-old Ferrell has just 10 sacks over four years is quite frustrating for a former top-four pick.
Relegated to a reserve pass-rusher during his final two years with Las Vegas, Ferrell now faces the reality of forever being labeled as a top draft bust.
Unless San Francisco can resurrect his career.
Why did the 49ers sign Clelin Ferrell in NFL free agency?
An old NFL adage states that when a team feels it has enough pass-rushers, it should go out and add another.
For the 49ers, though, they are actually quite top-heavy in the edge-rushing department behind All-Pro Nick Bosa, particularly after both Omenihu and Samson Ebukam left via NFL free agency. Sure, the Niners can anticipate a leap from second-year edge Drake Jackson.
But the outside pass-rushing crop aside from Bosa remains a notable question mark.
Ferrell had the raw talent. He was a bona fide Round 1 prospect, thanks to his collegiate efforts at Clemson, and it's fair to question whether the Raiders used him correctly during his time there.
Essentially, San Francisco is taking a low-risk, high-reward one-year flier on the 6-foot-4 and 265-pound defender, hoping he can capitalize on his time with Kocurek, who has worked similar wonders with other underachieving D-linemen before.
How much are the 49ers paying Clelin Ferrell in 2023?
The low-risk nature of Ferrell's free-agent contract with the 49ers can be reflected by the fact it's only a one-year deal, according to Spotrac, that'll pay him up to $2.5 million this season.
$1.82 million of that is guaranteed, which stands as a pretty good indicator that Ferrell will make the Niners' 53-man roster out of training camp.
Regardless, $2.5 million is cheap money for an even underwhelming pass-rusher. So, if Ferrell delivers at an even modest level, that'll be cash well spent.
What will Clelin Ferrell's role with 49ers be in 2023?
Bosa is going to be the top pass-rushing force on the depth chart. No questions there.
However, the No. 2 pass-rushing job is very much up for grabs. Jackson is in the mix, of course, and San Francisco would like him to earn that role after struggling down the stretch his rookie season a year ago.
But players like Ferrell, Hyder, Austin Bryant and others are also contending to be Bosa's opposite linemate this season.
Ferrell has the talent to achieve this, so he's certainly in contention to start. But the safer bet is that he spends much of 2023 in a situational pass-rushing role, not unlike what Omenihu was last season or Key was the year prior.
Both Omenihu and Key registered five-plus sacks in those respective roles, and achieving that would be a blessing for Ferrell if he can reach the benchmark.