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How the 49ers defense needs to continue to evolve

The 49ers have started to become more athletic on defense; now they need to add versatility

NFL: Chicago Bears at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Saying the San Francisco 49ers need to add better players on defense goes without saying. The more I’m able to get a feel for what the Niners want to do on defense, the more it’s clear that they need more versatile pieces. Let’s use basketball as a reference: Teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and the Oklahoma City Thunder are two of the better defensive teams because they are versatile. Usually four of their five players on the court can guard any position on the floor. That’s what makes them so good. In the NBA, it’s heavy pick and roll. So you can’t be boxed in to guarding one position, or else you’ll get scored on at will.

Sound familiar?

My two takeaways from watching the Niners play defense last year is they were slow and one-dimensional. Deforest Buckner can bulldoze your tackle, but also out quick your guard. That’s versatility. There was not a lot of that throughout the defense. Too many secondary players missing tackles. Too many linebackers that couldn’t cover. Zero speed coming off the edge. That’s where the team needs to transform. They’ve started to during this free agency, but they have a long ways to go.

Finding their stretch 4

The equivalent of a big man that can shoot is having a defender on the front seven that can do it all. A guy that can rush the passer, blitz as a linebacker, play the run, but also cover. Both bring immense value to their respective sports. Think Donta Hightower of the Patriots. What that does for a defense is allow other guys to do what they do best.

It’s far-fetched to think you can field a defense with 11 defenders like this. Being able to get one in the front seven and one in the secondary should be the goal. Let Kwon Alexander be the run and chase guy that wins with his athleticism. The Niners still have room for a hybrid type player that can do all of those things. Having a player like that also protects you from any injury that happens, as he could slide right in to about any position.

On third down: Bosa-DeFo-Collins-Ford. Where do I sign?


A guy like Jamie Collins, who is available, would do wonders for this defense. Collins can come in right away and start at “SAM” linebacker. If you’re not aware of his athleticism, he’s 250 pounds, and he lined up at free safety six times last year. Collins literally lined up at every position last year. He also played over 1,000 snaps. He a very good athlete that didn’t have a great finish once the Browns were eliminated. Collins can play. That is the type of player the 49ers should be looking at, whether in the draft or via free agency.

Scorer’s in the secondary

An elite shooter is great to have. See, Klay Thompson. An elite scorer is how you win rings. See, Steph Curry. That’s how I would differentiate a free safety that is very good at patrolling the middle of the field, but doesn’t offer much else. Let’s say there are 10 snaps in a game. Of those 10 snaps, that deep free safety might only be called upon to take away a deep route on three of those snaps. If he can’t tackle, or help out underneath, what’s his true value? Earl Thomas is an obvious outlier that makes a ton of players around the line of scrimmage.

Steph can create. That matters. The 49ers need somebody in their secondary that can do a bit of everything. The term/roles “free” safety and “strong” safety are outdated. You’re playing the Rams, they motion a WR to the other side of the formation. Guess what? Your free safety that was deep has to come down and line up against him, because you’re running a zone coverage. One simple motion completely changes that players responsibility. That happened left and right last year for San Francisco. Guys that were only suited to do one thing found themselves in an unfamiliar position and the results weren’t good. Whether it was the secondary missing tackles on a running back, or a linebacker getting left in the dust in coverage.

Adding athleticism should help mask some of these issues. The team still needs to add versatile good football players. Luckily, the top of the second round should be full of them. A guy like Taylor Rapp would out of Washington would be a great pick:

There will be plenty of options at 36 that can do a lot of things at a high level. It’s a sweet spot for safety.


Saleh’s defense is not very complex. Because of that, you need more dudes. When you run a defense that is heavy cover-3, you need players that can make you right, even when you are wrong. Attentive players that can make an impact on defense without you ever knowing it. Sometimes the best play is a stat never recorded. The QB wants to throw to the tight end on third down. He stared down the TE, but he’s covered. He now has to throw the ball away. You can’t chart that play in targets or grades, but those plays that go ignored in the box score are just as big as a tackle.

Which goes back to the original point. You can play this type of defense if you have guys that can “switch on the pick and roll.”

Kam Chancellor. Keanu Neal. Derwin James.

All players that impact the middle of the field. Now it’s the 49ers time to find that difference maker. Once they figure out who that is, this defense will go to the next level. Especially once they’ve added a pass rusher at the top of the draft. If the team is able to add a Collins type player for the front seven, look out. If the team wants to make a playoff run, they’ll need to continue to add versatility on defense.