The San Francisco 49ers are going into the 2021 NFL season with championship expectations. After an injury-ravaged 2020 campaign, the Niners are running it back with most of the members that were on the 2019 team that made it to the Super Bowl.
The 2019 squad had a dominant defense. Two of the players that were the leaders of that group should be back and better than ever next season. All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner and pass-rushing extraordinaire Nick Bosa will be the focal point of the defense under new coordinator DeMeco Ryans.
Pro Football Focus released its top 25 players under the age of 25 going into the 2021 campaign, and it’s no surprise to see the pair of 49ers on the list.
PFF listed Warner No. 1 in its rankings.
At a position that has become ever-more difficult to play, given how good NFL offenses have become at attacking defensive weaknesses, Warner has become arguably the game’s best linebacker. The former third-round pick earned a PFF coverage grade of 91.1 in 2020, allowing a passer rating of just 81.9 into his coverage, some 25 points lower than the average at the position.
Warner finished with 125 tackles (five for a loss), seven QB hits, two interceptions, and a sack. Because of his standout play, Warner’s cap hit will climb from $844,000 to just over $3.3 million due to the league’s proven performance escalator program. The NFL rewards players selected in the third round or later if their performance exceeds their draft positioning. Warner has spent three years in the league, so he is now eligible for what should be a lucrative extension.
As PFF points out, Warner’s coverage skills are on another level. He only gave up 4.4 yards per target, and opposing QBs had a 69.7 rating when throwing in Warner’s direction. That’s a stark improvement from the 91.8 rating QBs had when going after Warner in the passing game during his rookie year.
Warner’s position coach last season, Dameco Ryans, will be San Francisco’s defensive coordinator next season after Robert Saleh took the head coaching job with the New York Jets.
Bosa — who likely would have been higher if he didn’t tear his ACL in Week 2 last season — came in at No. 5.
We have only seen one year of Nick Bosa in the NFL, with injury robbing us of an encore last season. Still, that one year was devastating. As a rookie, Bosa notched 80 total pressures, breaking the PFF rookie record. He was still cooking by the Super Bowl, too, where he notched 12 pressures in a losing effort to try and contain Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Let’s ignore the last sentence, given that the Chiefs’ lineman held Bosa throughout the second half.
Bosa put up great numbers his rookie year, finishing with 9 sacks, 47 tackles, including 16 for a loss, en route to winning the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. Despite being a top 10 defense last season, the 49ers desperately missed his presence.
With Bosa back in the fold for the 2021 campaign, it will make every member of the defense better. The opposition will have to specifically gameplan to slow down the Ohio State product, which should open up some room for Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Samson Ebukam and hopefully a healthy Dee Ford.
Like Warner, Bosa will be in line for a massive extension after his third year. The pair gives the 49ers a prominent 1-2 punch on defense, and if the dollar amounts can be worked out, they will be the heart of the unit for at least another five-plus seasons.
If Trey Lance can eventually live up to expectations and Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk continue their development, the 49ers will have arguably the best young core group of players in the NFL for years to come.
Here are the top 10 players on PFF’s rankings:
1 - Warner (49ers)
2 - Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills)
3 - Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens)
4 - A.J. Brown (Tennesse Titans)
5 - Bosa (49ers)
6 - Jaire Alexander (Green Bay Packers)
7 - Minkah Fitzpatrick (Pittsburgh Steelers)
8 - Chase Young (Washington Football Team)
9 - Justin Jefferson (Minnesota Vikings)
10 - Tristan Wirfs (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
What do you think of PFF’s rankings? How would you rank the top 10 players under the age of 25 going into next season?