clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How many players will we see in 49ers defensive rotation?

New, comments

The San Francisco 49ers have a lot of options competing for playing time on the defensive side of the ball. We could very well see a 16- or 17-man rotation if things work out right.

The San Francisco 49ers invested significant draft capital in the defense last month. The team spent four of their first five picks on defensive players, including DT DeForest Buckner, CB Will Redmond, CB Rashard Robinson, and DE Ronald Blair. Buckner figures to slot into playing time immediately, while the rest could create opportunities with strong performances in training camp.

On Wednesday, defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil met with the media and had a chance to discuss the defensive rotation to some extent. The final question of his press conference was about Jaquiski Tartt, and whether or not he might be more of a hybrid safety who plays down in the box. The question specifically was if they need to carve out a role like that for Tartt. O'Neil said:

"Again, right now I’m focused on finding who are the 11, you know what I mean? And then if we have 15 or 16 guys, we’re going to find ways to get them on the field. If a guy has earned the right to play for us, we’re going to find roles for him to do it and get him on the field.”

Ryan Sakamoto wrote about it as indicating there would be a 15- or 16-man rotation. I do think we could see that kind of number of players, but I also didn't quite read O'Neil's comments like that. I read it more as, we want to find our starting 11, and whatever more we have than that, we'll figure out ways to work them in.

That being said, in looking at the offseason additions and the current defense, we could easily see four or five extra guys getting significant reps. And honestly, even if there were questions after 13 or 14 guys, the number of reps opposite the Chip Kelly offense might simply require extra bodies.

Sakamoto listed out a starting lineup that included a defensive line of Quinton Dial, Ian Williams, and DeForest Buckner. There will be plenty of debate about who will be starting on the line, but whether it's Armstead or Buckner, the other will definitely be getting significant playing time. That gets you to 12 players.

If we assume Williams is healthy heading into Week 1 (still a big assumption), I agree with Sakamoto that Mike Purcell potentially develops into another primary utility guy on the line. He will compete with Tony Jerod-Eddie, Garrison Smith, and rookie Ronald Blair for whatever playing time they can find. Blair seems likely to work his way into the mix fairly early, but given his rookie status, the team might take their time with him.

Defensive line options: Arik Armstead OR DeForest Buckner, Ronald Blair, Mike Purcell or others

If we move back to the middle of the defense, there will be at least one outside linebacker rotating in behind Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks. Eli Harold is getting starter snaps in OTAs, and it will be interesting to see if he can potentially work his way past Ahmad Brooks at some point this year. And of course, we can't forget about Tank Carradine.

Outside linebacker options: Eli Harold, Tank Carradine

In the secondary, the 49ers have been playing Jimmie Ward on the outside in the base defense, and mixing him outside and in the slot in the nickel defense. The 49ers have a large contingent of cornerbacks after Ward and Tramaine Brock. They have Dontae Johnson, Kenneth Acker, Marcus Cromartie, and of course added Will Redmond and Rashard Robinson in the draft. At least one of those guys would likely serve in a nickel back role, with a second potentially getting some additional time

Cornerback options: Dontae Johnson, Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson, "others"

One of the big questions will be what to do with Jaquiski Tartt. Antoine Bethea is back healthy, and he and Eric Reid seem to be off to a strong start learning Jim O'Neil's defense. Assuming Bethea sticks around, the team is going to have to get creative with Tartt. I could see him getting some nickel linebacker work next to NaVorro Bowman, but we could also potentially see him as the nickel or dime back as well. I imagine the most creativity in this defense will involve Tartt.

Safety options: Jaquiski Tartt

Just looking through these numbers, we see as many as six or seven potential options. We could look at Tartt, two cornerbacks, Harold, one of Buckner or Armstead (whomever is not starting), and maybe Ronald Blair and Mike Purcell. You can pick and choose the names, but I could see this rotation ending up as more than 15 or 16. That could be a little bit too much offseason optimism, but at least there are interesting options to consider.