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Talking 49ers defensive changes with Football Outsiders

We’re back with Bryan Knowles to talk 49ers defense.

We’re back with our second question with Football Outsiders! Every year, FO releases their Almanac that offers all sorts of nuggets for the coming season. And each year, we partner with them to get some questions answered in preparation for the upcoming season. This season, FO writer Bryan Knowles (who also writes for Niner Noise) took some time to answer questions we had.

I try and focus the questions on content in the Almanac, but we sometimes will get out beyond that since there is so much to consider each year. Bryan answered five questions, and we’ll have five posts in the coming days. You can purchase a copy of the Almanac here.

Yesterday, he discussed Kyle Shanahan’s strategic tendencies in Atlanta. Today, we move on to the defensive side of the ball. I asked Bryan how the adjustment to the Seahawks style of defense coupled with more high round picks spent on the defense would impact the unit. Here’s what he had to say.

I'd value the high-round picks more than the switch to the Seahawks style, honestly. It's an old Bill Walsh axiom that you can win with scheme on offense, but you need talent on defense. Bringing in Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster and Ahkello Witherspoon in recent years will do more to boost a team's defense than where precisely they line up on the field. Assuming they all develop well – which has been a dangerous assumption, at least in the Baalke era – then that's the core of a very dangerous defense, and the best DLine in football.

I'd be a bit more optimistic about the switch in defensive formations if there was a clear, obvious LEO. Armstead's been working there, as has Aaron Lynch and Ronald Blair (who is a young player we really like at FO, assuming he can still find playing time behind so much early-round talent), and then you've got Dumervil and Taumoepenu (who I hope doesn't become a thing if only so I don't have to spell it every time). A lot of interesting options, and a lot of chances for someone to work out, but no one who goes right to "yes, this is it, right here.” I'm also not sure they have the secondary talent yet to really replicate what Seattle was able to do, though Rashard Robinson looked promising as a rookie.

As for 2017, we have the 49ers projected 31st in defense with a 7.5 percent DVOA. Again, that's better than the Tomsula or Kelly years, but not as good as what they did under Harbaugh. Keep in mind that 7.5 percent is the mean projection– in some simulations, they did significantly worse, and in some, they did significantly better. There's reason for optimism here, though I think we're probably talking a year or two away.