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49ers positional review: The defensive line was historically good in 2019

Which is why the front office should do everything they can to keep this group together

NFL: JAN 19 NFC Championship - Packers at 49ers Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What you saw from the San Francisco 49ers defensive line in 2019 were dominance and destruction. This unit set the tone from the start of the season, and never really looked back. Even with injuries in the middle of the season, the front four remained in the top-10 in the NFL in pressure rate. That’s not only a testament to the depth on the team, but the stars. Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner lit it up all season. If you doubled one person, the other two would win. If you singled up all three, the odds were pretty high that at least two of the three would beat their man. They were that good.

The 49ers led the league in hurry percentage at 14.7%. That pressure was enough to throw quarterbacks off, and allow the back-seven to be aggressive and make plays in coverage. When you combined hurries, quarterback knockdowns, and sacks, the 49ers were second at 28.7%. Considering Dee Ford didn’t play anywhere near the number of snaps the team expected him to, that number is impressive. When Ford was on the field, the Niners’ pressure rate was around 38%—which is historic territory.

Doubling down on depth

The defensive line had some promising production from a few players that didn’t play very much. Two of them are free agents. Damontre Moore lit it up during the preseason, but that was against guys that didn’t make NFL rosters, and I wonder how much that played a factor in Moore not making the initial 53-man roster. That’s not his fault. It’s Moore’s job to beat whoever is blocking him. When Moore had the opportunity in two games, he didn’t disappoint. On 37 pass-rush snaps, Moore combined for seven total pressures. For context, Solomon Thomas had 15 pressures on 311 snaps.

If you argued Ronald Blair had a better year than Moore; many wouldn’t bat an eye. Blair appeared in nine games, and on 112 pass-rush snaps, Blair finished with ten total pressures on the season. Both players were great, “give me a breather, guys.” By that, I mean, when one of the starters came out, there was a drop-off, but not to the point where you didn’t have to account for Blair or Moore. That is what made the defense dangerous. Both players are unrestricted free agents. Both players should be 49ers in 2020.

The edge depth was great, and it’s tough to complain about their production. The same cannot be said for the interior play. Earl Mitchell played three games but was largely ineffective. Sheldon Day flashed occasionally, but when the 49ers needed him most, Day didn’t come through. Kenatvius Street and Kevin Givens need developing, and Jullian Taylor—who was the best name mentioned yet, couldn’t stay healthy. The starters are fine, but we haven’t seen enough from Street or Givens, and Day and Mitchell are free agents.

Keeping the core together

To a man, Bosa, Armstead, and Buckner all praised Ford for his leadership skills and what he added to the defense on the field and his leadership off the field. When we talk about free agents over the next week or so, it’s impossible for us to know who is a “fit” without knowing them. Ford’s season didn’t turn out the way he wanted to, but his impact was still great.

The 49ers need D.J. Jone’s healthy. Period. He’s a budding star. Robert Saleh compared him to former Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. When Jones played, the 49ers were at their best. If you remember the first matchup against Seattle or the first few plays against Green Bay, that’s the type of player Jones is. A disruptor that will blow whatever your plan is up in the backfield. Jones isn’t just strong as an ox; he’s plenty quick. We haven’t seen the best of Jones just yet.

There’s no need to discuss Armstead’s contract extension. We’re all just guessing at this point. He was “good” in 2018 and trending in the right way. In 2019 everything came together, and Armstead looked like the player the 49ers envisioned when they selected him in the first round. Armstead’s first half of the season was incredible. As the season went on, it looked like the high number of snaps caught up to Armstead’s play, but he was still plenty effective.

Buckner came into the season as arguably the team’s best player. He was overshadowed by Armstead and Bosa and weirdly became underrated as the season went along. Buckner finished the season with 7.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, and nine tackles for loss. Add in 39 stops and his best football at the end of the year, and the 25-year-old’s ceiling is one of the best in the league. It may be unpopular considering the numbers he put up in 2018, but I thought Buckner was a much better player in 2019.

When you take a player in the top-five, he has to hit. There’s no real way around that if you want to be successful. Calling Bosa a “hit” would be like calling Raheem Mostert “fast.” It’s selling both short. The rookie who came into the season out of shape due to a preseason injury started the year with seven sacks in as many games. Bosa would finish the season eighth in tackles for loss and quarterback hits, and sixth in total pressures. I’m sure if I went back, I could find five or six plays where Bosa had the quarterback wrapped up but wasn’t able to bring him down. So when Bosa has double-digit sacks next year and is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, it won’t be because he had this crazy talent jump in Year 2, it’s because he finished the tackle. Bosa is a star.