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Roster crunch: How many defensive linemen can make the team?

The 49ers deepest position group will be the hardest to whittle down by Week 1.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Chargers
Jordan Willis takes down Easton Stick for a sack and safety in Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As training camp and the preseason marched forward, the consistent word from everyone in attendance was that the defensive line looked eye-poppingly dominant — especially when facing the second-string offense.

The Chargers game only further proved the hype was real. It featured constant pressure up front, resulting in four sacks, an intentional grounding call, and a safety, all to their credit.

From the beginning of the Shanahan/Lynch tenure —proven by the selection of Solomon Thomas as the regime’s first draft selection — we’ve seen that their shared philosophy puts the utmost importance on constructing a defense from the trenches out.

Kyle has gone on the record that this belief predates his tenure in San Francisco or even coaching in the NFL. He’s said, “I can promise you, ask my high school friends when we did Madden, and we drafted our own guys, my first pick was always [Hall of Fame defensive end Michael] Strahan. ... I always wanted to do D-line.”

This offseason, in particular, it seems the front office decided to triple down on the strategy to replicate the dangerous 2019 defense and ensure that no number of injuries could rob the platoon of its effectiveness, like in 2020.

Having drafted the position heavily in previous years, they eschewed that avenue entirely. Instead, opting to acquire more proven, veteran talent through an impressively diverse set of circumstances.

They started by retaining in-house talent, like D.J. Jones, on a veteran minimum deal. Then, they scoured the free agency pool for undervalued pieces, like Samson Ebukam and Zach Kerr, whose underlying performances point to the possibility of more production in a new system.

Lastly, they made sure to capitalize on another team’s lapse in judgment when they dumped above-league-average players for no good reason, like Maurice Hurst and Arden Key. Thanks, Raiders!

This laser-focused roster approach has successfully collected a defensive line so disgustingly stacked that it’s certainly the deepest position group on the team and, perhaps, in the league.

Kyle laid the situation out like this, “The whole game, whoever was in there, it seemed like we were coming off the ball hard, and from what I saw, we were affecting the QB.”

Obviously, amassing too much talent at one position is what people would call a good problem to have, but it’s a problem, nevertheless, when cuts have to be made. Kyle addressed this, saying, “We’ve got some depth on the D-line. It’s going to be a tough decision.”

Last year, they started with nine linemen on the defensive side of the ball, but that figure isn’t set in stone, as the Super Bowl team carried ten to begin the season. So it seems quite likely that they’d try to repeat history and steal another roster spot from a different group, like quarterback or linebacker, to bolster/hoard as much talent as they can.

Let's break down the most likely version of the group the Niners will roll out in Week 1.

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Nick Bosa celebrates during the 49ers victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

LOCKS (6)

Nick Bosa - Ever heard of him? Even coming off an ACL tear, I feel comfortable putting him down as a lock and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Arik Armstead - He looked excellent on Sunday in limited use, recording a sack in only two series of play. His versatility is why the front office chose to extend him and trade Buckner. Expect a bounce-back year with more than 3.5 sacks once his healthy running mates have returned.

Javon Kinlaw - The first-round pick looks poised to explode in his second season, as long as his creaky knee cooperates. If his size and power have been refined, health would be the only thing that could slow him down.

Dee Ford - Ford for a time looked like a cap casualty in the making, but an injury payout clause made a restructure the more palatable option. He spent all offseason at the facility and not only recovered but seems to be back in fighting shape. According to reports, he was one of the best players on the field for the joint practices in Los Angeles.

Samson Ebukam - The recent free agent signing offers a depth edge piece, backing up Bosa and Ford. Consider him this year’s Kerry Hyder. Perhaps, the coaching staff will get just as much out of him. In his first game dressing this preseason, he logged a sack, chasing Easton Stick from behind off the edge.

D.J. Jones - He’s a multi-year starter at DT who has yet to play a full season due to injuries. He’s one of the heftiest, most athletic players along the line and excels at defending the run and pass in equal measure. No brainer.

PROBABLES (3)

Kentavius Street - After three seasons spent rehabbing a nasty injury, Street has finally entered camp healthy, and the buzz has been loud. DC DeMeco Ryans has sung his praises as a constant backfield disruptor. This was put on display Sunday when he notched a sack at the end of the game and caused headaches all day in the run game. When asked about the unit, Street said, “This D-line is crazy.”

Zach Kerr - After being ranked tenth in pressure rate at his position last year, the Panthers were comfortable parting ways with Kerr. He has seven seasons under his belt, and looked tremendous against the Chargers, as he batted a ball down at the line, drew a holding penalty, forced an intentional grounding, and blew up run plays consistently. When asked about this D-line compared to others that he played on, Kerr replied, “I can’t stress it enough, this is probably gonna sound a little cheesy, but this is the best, the fastest. It’s scary.”

Maurice Hurst - Hurst represents a bargain that fell right into San Francisco’s lap. Given the spotty health among the interior starters, it makes perfect sense to have a valuable depth piece with a proven track record. Hopefully, his ankle injury sustained in the Chargers game isn’t serious. Otherwise, there won’t be as much of a logjam, proving you really can never sign enough defensive linemen.

FRINGE (3)

Kevin Givens - Givens appeared in thirteen games with one start, producing fourteen tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble as a reserve in 2020. There is an argument Givens belongs in the “probables” due to the shout-out he received from Ryans, who felt his work this offseason has put him in a spot for a potential breakout.

Jordan Willis - Willis has received raves during camp, and it showed on Sunday when he flew around the edge and took down Stick in the end zone for a safety. He will serve a suspension the first six weeks of the season, which might make this whole process a little easier. Another player will get a chance to prove themselves, and if they don’t work out or there’s an injury, Willis can return with fresh legs to the rotation.

Arden Key - According to Shanahan, Key is someone the Niners looked at closely when he came out of LSU because his physical traits are off the charts. He’s languished on the Raiders and has openly celebrated getting an opportunity elsewhere. He’s looked good against backups in practice, but gameplay is a different beast, and he hasn’t asserted himself so far.

FINAL PREDICTIONS (10)

Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Dee Ford, Samson Ebukam, D.J. Jones, Kentavius Street, Zach Kerr, Maurice Hurst, and Kevin Givens.

The only thing I’m sure of after this exercise is that the Niners will carry ten linemen, no question. Looking at this list, though, I feel like Arden Key should be on there somewhere, especially since this grouping feels a bit heavy on the interior. However, which one of these guys, who all performed at a high level, would you lose?

Right now, it almost seems like the best thing would be for Hurst’s ankle to keep him sidelined for multiple weeks so that he can start the season on the IR. Then, if/when other bumps in the road arise, he could be in line to return along with Jordan Willis as reinforcements. Usually, situations like this tend to solve themselves naturally, which might be the most natural solution.

Not to mention, we aren’t even including other practice squad standbys, like Alex Barrett and Darion Daniels, who also performed admirably last season and this Sunday. Unfortunately, they’ll likely end up starting this season there or get poached by a needier team with playing time.

All told, I can safely say I don’t envy having to make this decision because almost certainly, whoever is on the outside looking in will end up on the inside somewhere else.