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Analysing Nick Bosa’s fit with the 49ers

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Scott Geelan analyses Nick Bosa’s fit in San Francisco, as well as providing brief thoughts on where the 49ers should go on Day 2

NFL: NFL Draft Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers got their guy last night, selecting former Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa with the number two overall pick in the NFL Draft. In his press conference, General Manager John Lynch made it clear that ultimately, Bosa was the player they coveted most, stating:

I think kind of the evolution of the process, two players really in our minds separated themselves from the pack, and it was Bosa and it was Quinnen Williams, and those were the players, and I think ultimately we had those guys ranked extremely evenly. Then you kind of look at where your team has the biggest need, and [...] Nick [...] was a piece that we still could use, another edge guy.”

Clearly, Bosa’s talent and the 49ers desire to add another piece on the edge elevated Bosa to the top prospect on their board. Given that, one would expect Bosa to be a comfortable fit in the 49ers’ defense, which is certainly the case.

Bosa is, without a doubt, a superb player. He’s got the athletic abilities and polish that suggests he can come into the league and be a Pro Bowl type player straight out the gate. With his refined hands, superb power, excellent (if slightly inconsistent) burst off the snap combined with understanding of his game and attack, Bosa has all the tools to dominate in every phase of the game, as explicitly stated by Kyle Shanahan, who said:

“He plays the run well. His best strength is rushing the passer, but no he can play all three downs and play in all situations.”

This latter point is perhaps the crucial thing that makes Bosa so valuable to the 49ers - he is capable of playing in ALL situations. From what I have seen, Bosa will be able to play in every down and distance scenario and every package that the 49ers use: outside of resting, he will never have to leave the field. How will that likely play out? And what will it mean for other players along the defensive line?

Base packages

This is one of the most common fronts the 49ers use - their base 4-3 under front. In Seattle this was (and could still be) called ‘Frisco’, with the LEO in a 9-tech, a 3-tech, a 1-tech, the strong side end aligned in a 5/6-tech and the SAM linebacker on or just off the LOS. In these sorts of fronts, Bosa could play at either end, though I would expect him to play at weak side end most of the time, where he would compete for time with Dee Ford. Deforest Buckner would likely be the first choice 3-tech & Solomon Thomas would compete with Arik Armstead to play 5/6-tech. Either could also play the 3-tech spot, whilst second year players Kentavius Street & Jullian Taylor could also play either spot. DJ Jones would likely man the nose tackle position, but they could look to use players who are better penetrators there.

Another common base under front that the 49ers use is a front the Seahawks called ‘Boston’. Note the position of the LEO, head up with a tight end. The strong safety will align close to the LOS to have contain responsibilities and the LEO will have to handle a possible tight-end - tackle double team, at least initially. This is the type of package that Dee Ford would likely struggle in. Bosa could certainly play the LEO role here. Given motion can cause the 49ers to shift from the previous ‘Frisco’ front into ‘Boston’, it’s feasible that we may not see Ford in base defence that often... In ‘Boston’, the defensive end spots would be filled by players capable of handling double teams - Bosa, Thomas, Armstead, Taylor, Street or even Ronald Blair.

The 49ers also run some over fronts in base. This was in part due to moving away from a defensive line type player at SAM to more of an off-ball linebacker type. Bosa would probably compete for snaps at LEO here, who aligns in a wide 9 alignment most commonly. He could play the big end spot as well however.

In this instance, because of the way the Lions align, Thomas (aligned at LEO), is actually head up over the tight end, whilst Arik Armstead at big-end is in a wide 9. Bosa could handle either spot - it’s again important to note that motion can see the responsibilities and alignments change - so having an end who can comfortably play lined up over a tight end/tackle or outside is a massive bonus.

Occasionally, the 49ers would also run bear style fronts. Bosa would be quite capable of playing at either end of the formation, but he would most likely play the 6-tech spot Solomon Thomas is playing over the tight end. In this sort of front, Thomas, Armstead, Buckner, Taylor & Street would probably compete to play the 3/4i-tech positions.

We have also heard that with the arrival of new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, the 49ers will be introducing more wide 9 elements to their playbooks. Here is a base package utilising the wide 9 from Miami last year. Bosa could play at either end spot, likely with Dee Ford opposite. On the inside, with the onus on penetration to stress offensive linemen, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Kentavius Street are the most likely candidates to man the two tackle spots.

Nickel/dime packages

The 49ers tended to use similar fronts in these packages - but they barely used dime at all last year. Their investment at linebacker suggests they might continue to shy away from dime if Kwon Alexander & Fred Warner remain healthy. Either way, the team will be in these the vast majority of the time.

The 49ers’ most common nickel look: An over front, with the big end in a 5 or 6-tech (depending on if there is an in-line TE) and a 3-tech to the strong side; then a 1-tech and the LEO on the weak side. The LEO will align in a wide 9, but as the second image shows, can have to align inside a TE. Bosa could play either end spot, and I would think he would be used flexibly at either end. He may actually play strong-side end more in nickel to allow Dee Ford onto the field at weak side end. Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, Kentavius Street and Jullian Taylor would reduce inside to compete at the defensive tackle spots. Armstead has shown he can play as a nickel nose tackle. The others could probably do so as well.

A more unusual nickel look that was used against 20 personnel vs the run heavy Seahawks. Notice how the defensive ends are both aligned inside the outermost player on the offensive line (a TE and an extra tackle respectively). Bosa could play at either end spot however without issues. It’s also interesting to note that Armstead is the nickel nose tackle and Thomas is the 3-tech. With the wide 9 elements this season, getting players with explosive penetration abilities at every spot is important.

Another more unusual nickel look, utilised often vs the Rams. Of some interest is the fact that the apparently genius innovation of Matt Patricia & Bill Belichick to play a 6-1 front against the Rams was being used by the 49ers in week 7. In this front, I would expect Bosa to play as one of the stand up OLBs, with Dee Ford opposite him at the other end.

The wide 9 style fronts the 49ers already use in nickel/dime in obvious passing situations. Bosa would most likely play at defensive end opposite Dee Ford. He could potentially reduce inside to play 3-tech, but the 49ers have plenty of bodies there!

Finally, a wide 9 with a 1/2i tech and a 3-tech to be used in nickel but not in obvious passing situations. Again, Bosa would play defensive end (probably to the TE side) with Dee Ford opposite.

Conclusion

So it’s fair to say that Bosa has a spot in every 49ers package, more so than Dee Ford and perhaps every other 49ers player not called DeForest Buckner. His development will be fascinating to follow, but one senses he has all the tools as well as the right situation to be a force as a 49er.

And my dream picks for Rounds 2 & 3...

Round 2: DK Metcalf - I know Matt Maiocco reported the team allegedly did not mesh well with Metcalf when they interviewed him at the Combine, but I would be really keen to draft the monster from Ole Miss. With his combination of size, speed and ability to beat press, Metcalf is the perfect X-iso receiver. He can run the go routes, deep overs, deep comebacks and digs that Kyle Shanahan dials up, demanding attention from a corner and a safety whilst clearing out space for the 49ers’ other receivers underneath. He doesn't need to be a superb route runner himself - the 49ers have multiple other receivers who can run post-corner-posts, pivots etc - he’d be the man that would terrify defences in other ways. Plus his perceived agility issues are overblown.

Round 3: Jachai Polite - You’re probably seeing a theme... I’m not sure Polite’s potentially poor interview at the Combine will prevent the 49ers drafting him if he’s there in round 3. Another player with immense talent (covered more in depth here), for a third round pick the upside is simply too good to pass up. With Polite, Ford and Bosa, the 49ers would have a stable of EDGE rushers who will terrify opposition teams.