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A look at the 49ers depth chart on defense after the first wave of free agency

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What a difference a year makes

San Francisco 49ers’ DeForest Buckner (99) celebrates his sack against New England Patriots starting quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the second quarter of their NFL game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images

On Monday, we went over what the San Francisco 49ers depth chart looks like on offense. Today we move to the other side of the ball. The 2019 49ers defense was nothing short of spectacular. The additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford transformed the defensive line into a nightmare for opposing offenses. The speed of Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw made it challenging to run east and west and the smarts of the secondary limited explosive passing plays for the majority of the season.

Fast forward a year, and the 49ers are in a better position than the majority of defenses in the NFL. That’s how we should look at this unit. Losing DeForest Buckner sucks. There is no way to sugarcoat that part. We’ll find out how the Niners plan to replace DeFo in the coming months. Until then, here is how the depth chart looks a month away from the draft.

Like yesterday, starters will be in bold.

Defensive line

Arik Armstead, D.J. Jones, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford

Solomon Thomas, Ronald Blair, Kerry Hyder*, Jullian Taylor, Kevin Givens, Kentavius Street

Who “starts” remains to be seen, but the four players in bold are who I’d expect to play the most snaps in 2020 for the 49ers. I doubt the 49ers exercise Solly’s fifth-year option. It’s a stretch, but if Thomas has a breakout season, then what? I’ll be curious to see if the 49ers ask Thomas to bulk up this offseason and have him concentrate on playing inside full-time.

The drop-off from the starting four to everyone else is a cliff, and this is coming from a Blair fan. Givens and Streets seemed like a year away from contributing, while Blair and Taylor are candidates to start the season on the PUP list. Expect the Niners to add another body or two before Week 1.

*Sure enough, the 49ers added Hyder on Monday. There is one depth piece.

Linebacker

Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander, Dre Greenlaw

Azeez Al-Shaair, Joe Walker

These are likely the linebackers that are on the roster come Week 1. The team got more athletic when they signed special teamer Joe Walker on Monday. All he needs to do is outperform Mark Nzeocha and Elijah Lee. If the 49ers release Nzeocha, they save $1.5 million.

Warner took a giant step in 2019. He’s arguably the best coverage linebacker in the NFL. Before Kwon was hurt, he held the coverage title. For a rookie to assume Alexander’s duties in the middle of the season, you couldn’t ask for a better performance from Greenlaw. The 49ers could have the best linebacking corps in the NFL in 2020.

Cornerbacks

Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, K’Waun Williams

Ahkello Witherspoon, D.J. Reed, Tim Harris, Jalen Tabor

In the event of an injury, the coaching staff would feel comfortable putting Witherspoon or Reed in the game. On paper, the 49ers have a good group of talented cornerbacks. After 2020, all of these names could be new. That’s why many believe the 49ers will invest in a cornerback early in this year’s draft. The question is, will they beat out Moseley? He’s better than given credit for, and we’ll discuss that later.

Harris was effectively “redshirted” as a rookie. We’ll see how much progress he made come training camp. Tabor lacks the athleticism to play full-time on the perimeter. This is a difficult position to figure out. I can’t wait to see how John Lynch addresses the position for the remainder of the offseason. It will tell us how he feels about Moseley and Witherspoon.

Safety

Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt

Tarvarius Moore, Marcell Harris, Derrick Kindred

Bringing back Ward was the correct decision. If Ward has to miss time, Moore can slide as a starter and, with another year at safety under his belt, provide competent play. Tartt is a free agent after 2020—which makes this upcoming season the most critical season for him yet. On the field, Tartt is one of the more sound safeties in the NFL. He may not have the highlight/splash plays as others, but Tartt makes the plays that cause running backs to cut a different direction or the quarterback to look another way. Tartt’s value cannot be quantified.

Harris did a fine job filling in for Tartt, while Kindred has played all over the secondary with the Browns. The 49ers should feel good about their safety group for this upcoming season.

As a defense, even with the loss of Defo, this is still arguably the best defense in the NFL.