The 10 best defensive linemen in the history of San Francisco 49ers

Who are the greatest defensive linemen in 49ers history?

Let's answer that question.

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Bryant Young (97)
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Bryant Young (97) / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

The 49ers have boasted a number of legendary defensive lineman, including some Hall of Famers and one who's destined for Canton.

The San Francisco 49ers, historically, are known for their offense. Star wide receivers and quarterbacks have largely been responsible for making the Niners a globally recognized franchise, and two offensive legends in particular -- quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice -- are in the discussion for the greatest of all time at their respective positions.

That said, San Francisco has boasted some pretty legendary defenders over the years, too, particularly on the defensive line.

In recent years, under general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers defensive line has been a top priority, and the Niners have allocated plenty of resources to bolster this unit.

One of those players added is en route to enshrinement within the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining other former San Francisco linemen who've achieved this rare feat.

With that as our backdrop, and using a combination of stats, accolades and tenure, Niner Noise presents to you the 10 best 49ers defensive linemen in franchise history.

10 best 49ers defensive linemen of all time

Here are a few of our favorites who just barely missed the cut:

  • DE Tommy Hart (1968-1977)
  • DT Arik Armstead (2014-2023)
  • DE Dwaine Board (1979-1987)
  • DT Roland Lakes (1961-1970)
  • DE Andre Carter (2001-2005)

Also of note, Hall of Famer Charles Haley was technically an outside linebacker during the bulk of his Niners tenure, so he won't be included on this particular list (if you're picky about this, just put him at 2B).

No. 10: Ed Henke (1951-1952, 1956-1960)

For much of their early history, San Francisco was defined by its solid D-line play, and Ed Henke was one of the main reasons why.

Coming over to the 49ers in 1951 in an age prior to sacks being a recorded stat, Henke nevertheless managed 12 fumble recoveries during his tenure with the team and managed to secure a Pro Bowl nomination for his efforts in 1952.

In between his Niners stints, Henke traveled north of the border to play in the CFL before returning back to the Bay Area for five seasons, including one campaign where he saw time on San Francisco's offensive line.

No. 9: Charlie Krueger (1958-1973)

In 1958, Henke was on his way out, and Charlie Krueger was heading in after being the ninth overall pick in that year's NFL Draft.

If longevity factors into the mix, Krueger could easily make this list after spending his entire 15-year career with the 49ers, which is fourth longest in franchise history. But Krueger did far more than just don the red and gold for a long time.

The two-time Pro Bowler racked up 54 sacks during that span, which ranks sixth most in team history, and his No. 70 was retired by the franchise in tandem with him being elected to the 49ers Hall of Fame.

No. 8: Michael Carter (1984-1992)

Some may argue Michael Carter should be slated below Krueger on this list, and it'd make sense from both statistical and longevity vantage points.

But, Carter has the individual accolades, plus three Super Bowl rings with the Niners, so that's the tipping point.

A true nose tackle, Carter never racked up the sack totals despite recording seven in 1985 and 6.5 in 1988, which helped him achieve two of his three Pro Bowl nods. On top of that, Carter also was a first-team All-Pro in 1987 and was a two-time second-team All-Pro, too.

The 6-foot-2, 285-pound lineman also doubled as a medal-winning Olympian, too.

No. 7: Dana Stubblefield (1993-1997, 2001-2002)

While Dana Stubblefield has experienced a number of off-field issues, there's no doubting the positive impact he had during his time with San Francisco, particularly his first stint that lasted after being a Round 1 draft choice in 1993 that turned into a Defensive Player of the Year award after recording 10.5 sacks his rookie season.

Surprisingly, Stubblefield didn't earn a Pro Bowl nod that season, but he achieved the feat three times en route to finishing his 49ers career with 46.5 sacks, ninth best in franchise history.

1997 was by far his best season, though, and Stubblefield not only bested his rookie sack total by recording a whopping 15 sacks and three forced fumbles, but he also secured Defensive Player of the Year honors, cementing him as one of the best defensive linemen of the decade.

No. 6: Cedric Hardman (1970-1979)

When one thinks of the Niners' all-time leading sack specialist, names like Haley or Bryant Young would come to mind.

It's actually an honor belonging to Cedric Hardman, who holds the franchise record with 108, including an NFL-best 18 sacks during the 1971 season when San Francisco was in the midst of three consecutive playoff appearances.

Hardman earned only two Pro Bowl honors during his 10-year 49ers career, but he crested at least 10 sacks six times and fell below eight sacks just once during his tenure with the team, his final year donning the red and gold.

No. 5: Fred Dean (1981-1985)

Fred Dean was already a star when the Niners traded for him in a 1981 deal with the San Diego Chargers, putting the final needed stamp on a defense that would help San Francisco win its first ever Super Bowl that season.

Dean would thrive with the 49ers, notching 12 sacks after the trade and earning first-team All-Pro honors while being a nominee for the NFL MVP award that season.

Two years later, Dean would record a career-best 17.5 sacks, and his 40 total with the Niners currently rank 13th best in franchise history.

The powerhouse out of Louisiana Tech would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

No. 4: Justin Smith (2008-2014)

It's not likely Justin Smith follows in Dean's footsteps and makes it into the Hall of Fame after switching teams.

But there's no doubting Smith's career truly took off once the Niners signed him as a free agent in 2008.

While putting up solid numbers with the Cincinnati Bengals between 2001 and 2007, Smith became an absolute wrecking ball for San Francisco and was seen as the cornerstone of its D-line during head coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure from 2011 through 2014, helping edge rusher Aldon Smith reach a rookie-record 19.5 sacks in 2012 by eating up as many as two or three blockers on each snap.

Justin Smith's time with the 49ers was about as dominant as it gets. He was a Pro Bowler for all but two of the five years spent in the Bay Area, a one-time first-team All-Pro and twice a second-team All-Pro. In 2011, he finished third in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year.

While his pass-rushing linemate received most of the attention in 2012, Smith was the one who made it all happen.

No. 3: Nick Bosa (2019-present)

Perhaps there's a little recency bias here, but Nick Bosa is looking every bit the part of a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Breaking into the league as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Bosa secured Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and then went on to take home the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year award, too, after leading the NFL with 18.5 sacks that season.

That translated into him receiving the biggest non-quarterback contract in league history the following offseason.

Bosa has been a no-doubt Pro Bowler every season except 2020 in which he missed all but two games because of a torn ACL. And, in that 2022 campaign, he was not only a first-team All-Pro but was in the running for NFL MVP, too, which is almost unheard of for defensive players in today's league.

Putting things into a bigger perspective, Bosa has already reached the No. 7 spot on the Niners' all-time leading sacks list with 53.5, and he's already the franchise's leader in quarterback hits with 141.

There's a strong chance Bosa winds up being the greatest San Francisco D-lineman of all time, but he has two legends to surpass.

No. 2: Bryant Young (1994-2007)

Few other players in 49ers history receive the adoration from fans than Young, who was finally enshrined in Canton in 2022 following a legendary 14-year career with the team that drafted him seventh overall back in 1994.

Winning his first and only Super Bowl that season, Young never got above 11.5 sacks but was nevertheless a model of consistency through the years, seeing plenty of team transitions until he finally stepped away following the 2007 season.

Over that span, Young achieved four Pro Bowls and a 1996 first-team All-Pro nod while being named a second-team All-Pro three times. Additionally, he was the 1999 Comeback Player of the Year after suffering a devastating leg injury late in the season prior.

Going further, Young is a member of the All-1990s team and received the Niners' coveted Len Eshmont award eight times, five more than any other player in team history.

Capping it all off, Young ranks second in San Francisco history with a whopping 89.5 sacks, which was the official franchise leader until the league finally recognized Hardman's efforts from when sacks weren't counted.

No. 1: Leo Nomellini (1950-1963)

Some may argue Hall of Famer Leo Nomellini isn't just the greatest defensive lineman in 49ers history, but he's in the conversation for greatest D-linemen to ever play the game.

Judging by his accolades, it'd be a strong argument.

Doubling on both sides of the ball at the line of scrimmage, we unfortunately can't fully grasp the statistical impact Nomellini had since sacks and tackles weren't exactly recorded until 1960, a full 10 years after the Italian-born star broke into the AAFL with the Niners back in 1950.

Still, when looking at how he was viewed by his peers for his efforts on offense and defense, it's easy to see why Nomellini could be viewed as an all-time best:

  • 10-time Pro Bowler
  • 6-time first-team All-Pro
  • 1-time second-team All-Pro
  • All-1950s team

Nomellini joined running back Joe Perry as San Francisco's first two players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame back in 1969.

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