Last week, we ranked each player on the 49ers offense into a color-coded tier. Since everyone agreed with each ranking, let’s do the same for the defensive side of the ball.
The team takes the practice field on Wednesday, where we’ll get a chance to see a host of new faces. Remember, as you’re reading these, some of these rankings are projections. I didn’t think it was a hot take to list the No. 3 overall pick as a starter-level player, as that’s the expectation when you select any player that high. But, there has to be nuance when we’re talking about football.
Here’s a refresher for how the colors are defined:
Blue - These are elite players that are among the best players in the league at their position.
Red - Starter-level players with production to go along with it. These players can win games for their team.
Purple - Solid players that the team can win games with, but might not necessarily win games for their team. Often they might be red-level players in one aspect of their game, like run defense, but struggle in another, like coverage. Ideally, this is the lowest level of player the team wants as a starter.
Green - Young players with talent and upside, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to prove themselves. They need development time before being moved to another category.
Orange - Back up players that can be replaced, typically needing a special teams role to make the team.
Yellow - Lack the ability to play on a consistent basis, but could potentially develop into a backup.
Gray - Injured players that can’t currently be evaluated due to a long-term injury.
Here’s where I’d slot the 49ers 2021 defense on the eve of training camp:
Bosa is one of the best players in the NFL. Where I think the disagreements will come is where Armstead is placed. Since he doesn’t show up in the sack column, Armstead isn’t viewed as a high-quality starter. I could not disagree more with that assessment as it ignores everything Armstead brings to the table.
When Armstead had Bosa by his side in 2019, he was incredible. Last season, Arik was a dominant run defender and helped the defense remain at a top-7-ish level.
If Ford were healthy, he’d be in the red tier. Ebukam has the athleticism and skill set to finish the season higher, but he has to become more consistent. The 49ers could very well finish the season with four edge rushers who are in the red tier.
Any production from Arden Key or Jordan Willis, if he does return to the roster, will be icing on the cake for the defense.
This was tough as Kinlaw could be in the green since he’s only had one season. But, if the 49ers' first-round pick from 2020 doesn’t finish this season in the red, would you be worried? He’s playing alongside premier talent on the edge, so Kinlaw should see a jump in production during Year 2. I have no doubts he’ll transform into a star this season.
Kinlaw isn’t the only player who can take the next step. With more playing time, Givens could find himself in the red tier as he was more effective last year than Kinlaw. This will be the most talent Kerr and Hurst have played with, which makes their ceilings higher than they’ve ever been.
San Francisco can go ten deep upfront without there being a drastic drop-off. Are there any other teams in the NFL who can say the same thing? This group will be a big reason why first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans's transition will be smooth.
Fred Warner is the best linebacker in the NFL, and now he’s paid like one. Greenlaw has been good for the most part but has been inconsistent enough to place him in the purple tier. If Dre can learn to trust what he sees and not think as much, he’ll bump up a tier this year.
Youth and athleticism make up the rest of the linebackers save Burgess, which is exactly what you want at linebacker: A bunch of guys who can run and hit. I’m not sure there’s a favorite for the third linebacker spot, and there doesn’t have to be. Just because one guy starts the season doesn’t mean it’s his spot for good, which is why this competition could be ongoing.
If we’re at a point where neither of the young guys grabs hold of the final linebacker spot, Ryans could use an additional defensive back in their place.
Jason Verrett was borderline elite last season. If he plays anywhere near the level as he did in 2020, Verrett will find himself in the blue tier with an improved pass rush if he stays healthy.
Williams is difficult as we have to grade these players based on their roles. For example, if Williams were an outside cornerback, we probably wouldn’t view him as high. But he’s not, and K’Waun is an ideal slot cornerback. He’s a fantastic run defender, top-tier Blitzer, and makes plays in coverage.
Moseley took a beating last season against the top wideouts he faced, but it feels premature to give up on him, especially after an impressive 2019 season. Moseley didn’t take a step forward, but that doesn’t mean his career with plateau.
Unfortunately, Moseley will have to continue to look over his shoulder as the 49ers drafted two cornerbacks this past draft. So my guess is E-Man begins the season as the starter. But, again, the domino effect from a better pass rush should help everyone.
Suppose Lenoir ends up being anything more than a special teamer, then good on San Francisco. Expectations are a touch higher for Ambry Thomas, who some think can beat out Moseley during training camp.
Dontae Johnson lives to see another year on the roster. Although to be fair to him, he played well toward the end of the 2020 season.
The 49ers have one of the best safety duos in the NFL. The problem is their duo has spent more time on the sideline than together on the field. That’s where Jefferson comes into play.
Jefferson has been a red-tiered player in both Arizona and Baltimore when he's been on the field. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see plenty of three-safety looks as opposed to three linebackers.
Mayden has contributed on special teams, while Hufanga plans to be an All-Pro special-teamer as a rookie. I’d guess we’re a year away from seeing both of these players contribute on defense.
Tartt and Ward don’t generate turnovers, so they don’t get the same type of hype other safeties do. However, there is much more that goes into playing the position, and their versatility and lack of mental mistakes are why the defense gives up next to nothing deep against the pass.
As a unit, the 49ers should field one of the best defenses in the NFL. A more aggressive scheme should simplify life for everyone, which could lead to the turnovers everyone craves.