Now that the draft is over, we can shift the focus back to everything San Francisco 49ers. In my opinion, one of the bigger needs for the team was adding a safety. The starters have proven that they cannot stay healthy. Going into 2019 and expecting a different result is borderline insanity. Yet, that’s exactly what the team did. Secondary is the obvious answer, but you can make a strong argument for a couple other positions.
The round table question for today is “what position group needs to improve the most for the 49ers to make the playoffs. Here’s how the staff answered:
I’m going with the defensive line. The front office invested heavily in two edge rushers this offseason, and rightfully so. Dee Ford and Nick Bosa now have to perform. The 49ers pressured the quarterback 29.9% of the time in 2018, good for 18th best in the NFL. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if the defense was able to generate turnovers or get off the field. The defense was 26th in points per drive, and dead last in both turnovers and interceptions per drive.
I was tough to watch the 49ers pass on a safety in such a strong class. The 49ers addressed their secondary by bringing in Bosa and Ford. Between those two, and star defensive tackle Deforest Buckner, you’d like to see the 49ers get that pressure number up to around 32%. That would have ranked them inside the top-10. It might not seem like much, but it’s a big difference. Hopefully both Ford and Bosa can be just that, difference makers.
The 49ers’ secondary is the clear answer for the position group most in need of improvement. San Francisco’s passing defense ranked 27th in the NFL last season, per Football Outsiders, and Lynch did very little in the way to improve the outlook this offseason. Opposite Richard Sherman, the 49ers will be relying on a three-way competition between Ahkello Witherspoon, Tarvarius Moore and free agent signee Jason Verrett. At safety, it’s another uninspiring competition between Adrian Colbert and Jimmie Ward. Colbert’s struggles were obvious last season before succumbing to a season-ending ankle injury. A broken forearm in Week 12 landed Ward on IR for the fourth time in five years. The additions of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa should relieve some of the pressure on the 49ers’ secondary, but they’ll still need to do their part in the marriage of pass rush and coverage.
The secondary is the obvious choice, but I’ll go in a different direction. The 49ers expect to have Jimmy Garoppolo back starting Week 1, but there are no guarantees that a) he’ll be back and b) he’ll show improvement and remain healthy. The defense needs to improve, but if this team is going to take a big step forward, it will be because Jimmy Garoppolo takes a notable step forward and stays on the field. I feel good about that happening, but until it actually does, we really don’t know where things stand. And given the team’s skill position additions, Garoppolo will be critical to their development.
The slam dunk answer is the defensive backfield. But, I’ll take this a different route and say that the edge rushers is the group that’ll need to improve the most. San Francisco racked up only 37 sacks last season, which was tied for 22nd in the NFL. While the secondary was plagued with injuries, the pass rush was a group that just didn’t flat out have the talent needed to produce on the field every Sunday.
An offseason certainly can make a difference, as now the 49ers have added defensive end Nick Bosa and pass rusher Dee Ford to the mix. The former Chiefs’ linebacker had 13.0 sacks in 2018 and was ranked the 11th best edge defender, per Pro Football Focus. Bosa was touted as the top edge player in the draft class and fell into the 49ers’ arms at No. 2 overall. While on paper, these additions make perfect sense, they still need to translate on the field.
The biggest questions will be if Ford can maintain his high level of play and if Bosa can return healthy to the field after only playing three games last season. If this position group can make significant strides, it’ll alleviate pressure off the back end of the defense and make the entire unit playoff-worthy.
The defensive backs. There’s a growing weight of statistical evidence that coverage is key in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball, over and above pass rush. And whilst it would be fair to say that the 49ers’ defensive backs weren’t helped at all by a painful lack of pass rush in previous seasons, the additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford ensures quarterbacks will not have all day to throw. Now the defensive backs need to make sure quarterbacks have to hold the ball long enough for the defensive line to get home.
There’s some real quality in the 49ers’ DB room - Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt and Jason Verrett have shown they can be top 10 players at their positions. The problem for all those three players has been health.
Jimmie Ward is another player with a well known injury history. It’s fair to say that the 49ers’ top four defensive backs need to improve in perhaps the biggest ‘ability’ of all - availability. If all four stay healthy that’s some serious quality alongside nickel corner K’waun Williams.
The 49ers also have a number of younger DBs with a lot of potential, who are yet to put it together consistently on the field or been given the opportunity to do so. The likes of Adrian Colbert and Ahkello Witherspoon face battles to start that they did not have as presumed sophomore starters a year ago, whilst this year’s sophomore secondary members DJ Reed, Marcell Harris and Tarvarius Moore face a battle to make a dent on the depth chart.
If the development of the 49ers’ younger DBs goes to plan and their more senior counterparts stay healthy, the team will see serious improvement over what looked a ragged secondary at times last season - beset by injury and miscommunication. That’s nevertheless a big ‘if’.
I’m with Kyle on this one. The defensive line needs to get pressure and generate sacks and turnovers. They were terrible in 2018. There’s the argument that a secondary is only as good as your pass rush and if that’s the case, the secondary can benefit from the defensive line’s improvement. Vic Fangio was able to make a suspect secondary elite with Aldon Smith/Justin Smith smacking quarterbacks around and the same can be done here.
I somewhat understand the thinking behind not going secondary in this year’s class. The 49ers have been drafting cornerbacks aplenty the last few years and have safeties, it’s just they are either rookies or not staying healthy. With Richard Sherman on one side and the combination of Tarvarius Moore/Ahkello Witherspoon on the other (as far as veterans are concerned, drafting more cornerbacks may not be the best way to look at talent. They also have D.J. Reed transitioning over to safety which offers another body there. Might as well give those guys a chance before you go get more unknowns.
If the defensive line can step it up and cause more chaos behind the line of scrimmage, the secondary should have some natural improvement. Just so long as they aren’t botching playcalls again.