One of the strengths of the San Francisco 49ers is the depth they have on their defensive line. Led by Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, the unit should be one of the team’s pillars for the 2021 NFL season.
The Niners are hopeful Dee Ford will be healthy and contribute after missing basically all of last season. The 49ers are also banking on 2020 first-round pick Javon Kinlaw to take a big step in his development during his second season.
Pro Football Focus continues its positional group rankings and has San Francisco’s defensive line ranked No. 9 in the NFL.
San Francisco’s defensive line went from borderline unblockable in 2019 to underwhelming in 2020. That’s to be expected after the team traded away one of the NFL’s best interior defenders (DeForest Buckner) and was without Nick Bosa and Dee Ford for all but 80 combined defensive snaps in 2020 because of injury. Bosa and Ford’s return to play alongside Arik Armstead could give the 49ers one of the best edge rotations in the NFL. San Francisco will also need Javon Kinlaw (54.1 PFF grade as a rookie) to make a second-year jump to get back toward the elite group we saw two years ago.
The Niners’ defensive line was dominant in 2019. Opposing offenses had their hands full each week with the likes of Bosa, Buckner, Armstead and Ford. San Francisco finished second in total yards allowed and third in expected points contributed by the defense that season and made a run to the Super Bowl.
General manager John Lynch elected to make a financial move in trading Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts last offseason. Without Buckner, Bosa and Ford, the 49ers’ defense lacked a true finisher in 2020.
That will change next season with the return of Bosa, who is one of the best defensive players in the league. His presence will have a domino effect on the rest of the defense, and we should see Armstead’s stats improve once again next season.
Here are the top 10 defensive lines in the NFL, according to PFF.
1 - Pittsburgh Steelers
2 - Washington Football Team
3 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
4 - Los Angeles Rams
5 - Philadelphia Eagles
6 - Chicago Bears
7 - New York Jets
8 - New Orleans Saints
9 - San Francisco 49ers
10 - Denver Broncos
PFF also released its NFL offensive line rankings, and once again, San Francisco comes in at ninth.
Trent Williams showed no rust after missing 2019 and finished with the highest grade among tackles in 2020 (91.9). It’s the third time Williams has graded at the top of his position, with his previous best finishes coming in 2013 and 2016. He is the best run-blocking tackle in the game and allowed only 19 pressures on 562 pass-blocking attempts last year.
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey is right there with Williams in the run game, as his 91.3 run-blocking grade ranked second last season. Since entering the league in 2018, McGlinchey has the third-highest percentage of positively graded run blocks, but he ranks just 35th in pass-blocking grade.
Left guard Laken Tomlinson is coming off a career-high 78.8 overall grade, 10th-best at the position. He’d posted consistent 66.0 to 69.0 grades in his three previous years as a starter with the 49ers, and his best work came as a run blocker, where he earned an 80.9 grade.
The other guard spot is a question mark. Second-rounder Aaron Banks is the favorite to win the job, though. He is a big-bodied guard who posted a mid-level run-blocking grade on zone runs in his Notre Dame career.
There’s a new look at center, as well, as Alex Mack reunites with head coach Kyle Shanahan. Mack is an outstanding zone blocker and a great scheme fit, but he’s coming off the lowest grade of his career (65.9). He may not be able to handle power players as he once could, but if Shanahan can tap into Mack’s strengths, there could be a huge payoff.
Williams is the stalwart of the unit. He was impressive in his first season with the team and gives the Niners one of the best players in the NFL at one of the most critical positions in the game. Williams and Laken Tomlinson stabilize the left side of the line and should be among the best tandems again in 2021.
Bringing in Mack finally gives the 49ers some peace of mind in the middle of the line. Since Weston Richburg suffered a gruesome leg injury in the 2019 Week 14 thrilling win over the Saints, San Francisco has struggled to find consistency at the center position.
Ben Garland was solid filling in for Richburg (who’s now retired), but he also dealt with the injury bug in 2020. Garland hurt his calf and only played in five games last season. The Niners went with Daniel Brunskill and Hroniss Grasu in his place, but neither player could perform up to Richburg and Garland’s level at the position.
The good news is that Mack is as durable as they come. He only missed two games while playing for the Atlanta Falcons in 2020. Before that, he didn’t miss a game for five consecutive seasons.
The right side of the line is where some question marks remain. As PFF’s Steve Palazzolo points out, 2018 first-round pick Mike McGlinchey was great in run-blocking, but he took a step back when protecting the QB.
McGlinchey had some clunkers in 2020 and will need to tweak some things if he wants to get up to being a league-average pass-blocker. He was bull-rushed off his spot too often last season, which contributed to San Francisco being among the bottom 10 in time to throw for the QB.
One of the most interesting training camp battles will be what happens at the right guard position. Daniel Brunskill and rookie Aaron Banks will likely compete for the starting spot. We should get some intel when the Niners convene for their mandatory minicamp, which is scheduled to run from June 15-17.
Here are the top offensive lines in the NFL, according to PFF.
What do you think of PFF’s rankings? Do you agree with where the Niners are ranked?