The San Francisco 49ers pass rush is a major question mark heading into the 2018 season. The team extended Cassius Marsh before he hit free agency, and added Jeremiah Attaochu after free agency began, but otherwise did not invest in the pass rush.
However, they will be counting on some returning players and betting on keeping those players healthy to improve the pass rush. DeForest Buckner has developed into a stud who is hoping to find that next step that results in more sacks. Solomon Thomas had some positive moments in his rookie campaign, but will be looking to find more consistency. Arik Armstead has regularly been among Pro Football Focus’ leads in pass rush efficiency, but he has dealt with season-ending injuries each of the past two seasons.
PFF likes the potential of this group. They put together a ranking of pass rush units, and while they ranked the 49ers in the bottom third (19th), they see talent in the group.
The talent is there in San Francisco, but the big question is how they get them all on the field together, and make them fit. Buckner, the seventh overall selection in the 2016 draft out of Oregon is the player who everything should run through. His career progressed exactly as the 49ers would have been hoping for in 2017, and his 52 total pressures helped him to the third highest pass-rush grade (89.6) of any interior defensive lineman in the league last year. 2015 first-round draft pick Armstead has been solid, but 77 total pressures through three seasons is a little short of what you would expect from the 17th overall selection in the draft. Thomas was the third overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, but managed just 30 total pressures off the edge in his first season in the league. He was more on an interior player at Stanford, and was a much more successful pass-rusher in his final season in college, so how he progresses, and how he fits with the 49ers defense in 2018 will be interesting to watch.
PFF included each team’s ranking in their pressure percentage statistic (percentage of rush snaps that result in QB sack, hit, or hurry). The 49ers ranked 26th in sacks accumulated on the season, but were 13th in PFF’s pressure percentage. DeForest Buckner is the best example of why that was. He regularly got pressure on the quarterback, but struggled to close the deal, finishing with three sacks on the season.
PFF included a projected starting lineup for each team. They had Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas on the edge, DeForest Buckner and Earl Mitchell on the interior, and Cassius Marsh as the key rotational player.
While Mitchell will get some pass rush work, I suspect we see Sheldon Day develop into the more regular rotation option in nickel and dime situations. And when they are in their sub-packages, the lineup will look considerably different than what PFF projects. Buckner will remain inside, but Armstead and Thomas will both get significant work at defensive tackle. Marsh and Attaochu will compete for edge rusher snaps, but we can’t count out Eli Harold and Pita Taumoepenu. And Ronald Blair will be in the mix as a versatile inside-outside option.
None of that guarantees this group sees success, but the 49ers would seem to think there’s enough there to see some progress from last year. I would argue the biggest “if” on this group is Armstead. “If” he can stay healthy, he’s the guy I see making the biggest impact in terms of pushing the pass rush forward. DeForest Buckner is the more talented of the two, but a healthy Armstead likely helps open the door for Buckner to close the deal with a little more regularity. I am not exactly holding my breath Armstead remains healthy, but if he does, watch out.