The San Francisco 49ers added several talented pieces this offseason. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan dipped into the free-agent market and signed Alex Mack, Samson Ebukam, Trent Sherfield, and Maurice Hurst.
The Niners also added eight picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, including quarterback Trey Lance, who the team traded up to select No. 3 overall. All of the additions will help San Francisco in its pursuit of a sixth Lombardi Trophy, but the return of a player who missed virtually all of last season will have the biggest impact.
Defensive lineman Nick Bosa is doing well in his rehab after tearing his ACL in Week 2 of the 2020 campaign and is expected to be back to be ready to go for the team’s training camp.
The absence of the former No. 2 pick and 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year was felt immensely last season. The 49ers ranked fifth in hurry percentage last season but wound up 21st in total sacks. The defense was missing some key pieces due to injury in 2020, but without Bosa, the unit lacked a finisher.
Shanahan hopped on Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin’s podcast and was asked about Bosa’s impending return (h/t 49ers Web Zone):
“It’s huge, there’s lots of good players in this league and Nick’s only played one year. But I think everyone saw the type of player he is now and that he was his rookie year,” Shanahan said. “Everyone saw that in college. He didn’t play a ton then, missing that last year and stuff. But when you have a guy at that level, and there’s not a ton of them, it changes who you are.”
Bosa was excellent during his rookie campaign. He finished the 2019 season with 47 tackles, 9 sacks, 25 QB hits, and 80 total pressures. Pro Football Focus gave Bosa an 86.7 overall grade in 2019, the fourth-highest of any rookie EDGE rushers since the site began tracking player stats.
The 23-year-old has the repertoire of a polished veteran. Bosa can use various pass-rushing moves to beat defenders and use his lethal combination of speed and strength to get after the quarterback.
Shanahan looks around the league and sees the impact an elite presence in the front-seven has on the game.
“Not comparing these guys, but the type of level guys are, if the Rams don’t have Aaron Donald, that’s going to be different,” Shanahan said. “If Denver loses Von Miller, it’s going to be different. There are just guys on the D-line that there’s a few that are different. How J.J. Watt was in Houston, it changes everything.
“And when you can get good players around people like that, and you can have a good scheme, it’s tough to mess with because there’s not people in the league that can block those guys. You can hold on, and you can try to scheme and stuff so you limit the opportunities, but those dude’s aren’t getting blocked. It’s a matter of time. So, you better make sure it’s not a one-dimensional game.
“You better make sure they’re playing run, playing pass, playing play-action, playing keepers, because if not, and those dude’s tee off, it’s over. That’s when they’ll get the MVP.”
Bosa’s return will have a domino effect on the rest of the defense. Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw and hopefully a healthy Dee Ford will have more room to work with as opposing offenses key in on slowing down Bosa.
New defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will have plenty of talent to work with. The Niners have a top-flight linebacking group led by All-Pro Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. San Francisco’s secondary is full of veterans, including Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt.
But Bosa is the straw that stirs the drink. When he was healthy in 2019, the 49ers defense was simply dominant, ranking first against the pass, sixth in total sacks, first in hurry percentage and second in pressure percentage. The unit did lose DeForest Buckner after dealing him to the Indianapolis Colts, and Ford was able to suit up for 11 games that season.
The hope is that Kinlaw will take a leap in his development to help offset Buckner’s departure, and Lynch is optimistic that Ford will be able to contribute in 2021.
What kind of numbers do you think Bosa will put up next season? Do you think the 49ers will have one of the best defenses in the league in 2021?