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ESPN ranks 49ers as one of the NFL's worst defenses

Bill Barnwell ranked the defensive triplets for all 32 NFL teams. The 49ers finished poorly, with NaVorro Bowman, Eric Reid, and Aaron Lynch.

Last week, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell ranked out the offensive triplets for each team. The 49ers ranked No. 31, with only the Cleveland Browns behind them. This week, Barnwell is back ranking defensive triplets. He acknowledged it is difficult to separate them out like you can with quarterbacks and offensive skill position players. But it’s still something fun to discuss as we consider what defensive units are out there.

The 49ers move up a bit in this ranking, but they still are fairly low. Barnwell ranked the 49ers No. 27. His trio included NaVorro Bowman, Aaron Lynch, and Eric Reid. Here’s what Barnwell had to say about the trio:

The 49ers might have topped this list a few years ago, when they could have thrown Bowman into the mix with Patrick Willis, Justin Smith or Aldon Smith. Things have sadly gone south since then, and while the Niners have replenished their defense with first-round picks in each of the past four seasons, many of those contributors remain unfinished products at best. Two of San Francisco's triplets are mid-round picks, with Bowman a former third-round pick and Lynch a fifth-rounder. Reid is just about all the 49ers have to show for a pair of disastrous drafts in 2012 and 2013, unless Vance McDonald delivers on the promise he finally showed at the end of last season.

The 49ers defense took a huge step back with the loss of Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland, and Aldon Smith. However, the front office has slowly replenished the unit with some potential. The key of course is that this is potential. The team has some quality veterans, and we’ve seen young guys like Aaron Lynch and Arik Armstead impress early in their careers. The 49ers will need more from Lynch and Armstead, and they will need to hit on some of this young talent at all three levels of the defense.

While we can say everybody is important, the 49ers will be looking for more from some over others. For example, on the defensive line, the team will look for improvement from Arik Armstead, and significant first year impact from rookie DeForest Buckner. I’m not saying they anticipate him getting into the starting lineup right away, but he needs to make serious contributions in his opportunities.

At the linebacker position, Eli Harold and Tank Carradine are the guys to watch. The 49ers need more from the position, beyond Lynch taking a step forward. And of course, the secondary features a lot of young talent with plenty to prove. It’s sort of a common refrain at this point for much of the defense.

The 49ers added an offensive-minded head coach in Chip Kelly, but the defense is the unit that has the potential to take a big step forward. We don’t know what Jim O’Neil will do with this unit, and we don’t know how Chip Kelly’s offensive will impact it, but the group has gotten a nice infusion of potential heading into 2016. I think it’s a reasonable guess to say they end up higher on this list a year from now.