The 49ers roster construction under the John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan regime has always revolved around the defensive line being the priority for allocating resources. Both Lynch and Shanahan have made it no secret that they feel like this is the most prudent way to construct a winning football team.
“You go back to when we first built this thing, Kyle and I came together, one of the things that we really believed in is that that’s an equalizer in a football league where everything’s set up for offenses to be successful,” Lynch said. “One of the ways you can equalize the equation is to get after and knock down the passer.”
While that line of thinking makes sense on paper, its practicality in the modern NFL is diminishing by the season. The uptick in roughing the passer penalties, as well as the reluctance to call offensive holding, has drastically reduced the value of having a dominant defensive line.
“You look at the best defenses of all time that I can remember,” Shanahan said “the Baltimore defense, they had a pass rush. You go to the Tampa Bay defense with Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp. They had a pass rush.”
The underlying problem with using these teams as a template is that it doesn’t account for the league's evolution over the last two decades since the teams as mentioned above rode their dominant defensive fronts to super bowl titles in the early 2000s.
Accounting for rule changes as well as the influx of dual-threat quarterbacks with plus mobility, and the effectiveness of a strong defensive line is arguably at the lowest point it ever has been.
The production has not matched the investment for as much emphasis as the 49ers have placed on pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The 49ers as a team have recorded 126 pressures this season, which would rank them 26th out of the 32 teams in the NFL.
They have only registered 30 QB hits, which ranks 30th in the entire league. These numbers on their own are troublesome, but even more so when you consider the number of resources that the 49ers have diverted into the defensive line.
Now I think it is important to note that there has been success under this regime, with the 49ers defensive line being the team's focal point. The 2019 season was driven by the defense's work in the trenches, but ultimately it’s a model we saw was not sustainable as it appeared to falter in the most crucial game of the season.
Collectively as a unit, the defensive line appeared to run out of gas towards the end of Super Bowl 54, being unable to generate an effective level of pressure capable of slowing down the surging Kansas City Chiefs as they completed a comeback after trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter.
In regards to the future construction of this roster, a much more pragmatic approach needs to be taken moving forward. I believe the 49ers will be forced to make this decision even if they are reluctant to do so on their own accord.
The catalyst for this change is their investment in rookie quarterback Trey Lance, which will ultimately necessitate the transition towards being a team that prioritizes its physically gifted quarterback rather than stubbornly continuing to pump its most valuable resources into the defensive line.