Since taking over in January of 2017, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have made it no secret that they believe in prioritizing building a stout defensive line capable of harassing opposing quarterbacks. We saw this team-building philosophy fuel a Super Bowl berth in 2019, as an incredibly talented roster was objectively driven by one of the best front fours that the NFL has ever seen.
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever in this league, and the high octane defensive line that led to so much success was bound to lose some pieces over time. That played out much sooner than anyone would have liked, as quickly half of this once-dominant unit was no longer a part of the equation. DeForest Buckner was moved prior to the 2020 NFL draft, and Dee Ford has struggled to stay on the field during the last two seasons due to a string of bad injury luck.
So now the 49ers front office was faced with a near-impossible task. They were replacing the production of two pro bowl caliber players with a limited amount of cap space and draft capital to acquire the players they would ultimately need to fill that void. A tall ask for any organization, but a challenge that the 49ers brass not only took head-on but absolutely knocked out of the park with acquisitions that produced a significant return on their investment.
While the 49ers don’t boast the same level of top-end defensive line talent that propelled them to great heights a couple of seasons ago, they now possess a tremendous amount of above-average depth that has manifested into an extremely effective rotation that sends wave after wave of ferocious pass rush at opposing quarterbacks. Let’s take a closer look at these acquisitions and how they have fared since joining the 49ers
I’m starting with Key because aside from the clear impact he has had on this team, I think he best exemplifies exactly what kind of player the 49ers search for with this low-risk/high reward strategy they have deployed. At 6’5 240 pounds, Key is an exceptional athlete who spent the first three years of his career with the Raiders after being drafted out of LSU in the 3rd round of the 2018 draft.
It felt like Key never really found the right fit with the Raiders, as his most productive season, came during his rookie year when he recorded 31 pressures and a sack. Numbers that Key has already surpassed in his first year in San Francisco, despite having fewer pass-rushing attempts than he did in his first season. Key is exactly the kind of athlete that the 49ers are willing to bet on, banking on the ability of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek to extract the very best from such a physically gifted player.
So far, that is a bet the 49ers have won, as Key has not only provided a huge boost on the edge but has become a destructive force as a pass rusher on the interior. Since a concerted effort was made to utilize Key on the interior around week 10, Key averaged three pressures per game and recorded a sack in 6 of those eight games. Key’s ability to disrupt a game from anywhere on the defensive line has been a godsend this season, particularly when you factor in how little he is counting against the salary cap this season.
Key was signed to a one-year 1,045,000 dollar contract prior to the season, accounting for only less than one percent of the 49ers' overall salary this season (0.53% to be exact). This is beyond incredible value when you consider that Key is second on the team in sacks (7) and tied for third in pressures generated (32).
This kind of value at that price is a major victory for any front office, and you can be sure that Key’s services will not be near as cheap when he signs his next contract this offseason. Key’s career year also sends a clear message to any potential free agents in the future. Suppose you are looking to rebuild your value as a defensive lineman. In that case, there may not be a better destination in the entire league than coming to the 49ers to work with Kocurek and assistant defensive line coach Darryl Tapp.
I have been writing a lot about Ebukam recently, and for a good reason. He has had as big an impact as anyone on the team in recent weeks and has done a complete 180 in terms of production compared to the early returns during the first half of the season. After a sluggish start, Ebukam has now recorded a sack in four consecutive games while also recording at least four pressures in each of those contests as well.
While Ebukam wasn’t a “splash” signing by any means, his acquisition certainly garnered a lot of attention in the offseason when the 49ers inked him to a two-year, 12 million dollar deal (with 5 million guaranteed). However, as I’ve previously noted, Ebukam’s slow start can be attributed to a number of factors.
The two primary reasons being he was thrust into a new role in a new scheme that is massively different than what he’d been asked to do in his career prior to joining the 49ers, and the other was playing through a knee injury he suffered during the preseason, that clearly lingered throughout the opening portion of the season.
While Ebukam’s services aren’t coming at the same discounted rate as Key’s, the 49ers have still managed to get tremendous value for a player who is only accounting for 1.9% of the salary cap this season. Ebukam is ranked 3rd on the team with 6 sacks and is tied for 3rd with 32 pressures, and if his late-season surge is indicative of what he can do at full strength after getting familiar with the scheme, his increased cap hit next season will be worth every penny as well.
I’d also like to add that the contract was extremely team-friendly as well, as the 49ers set themselves up well to walk away from Ebukam after the first season in the event that the signing didn’t work out. Additionally, with a dead cap hit of only 1.75 million in 2022, the 49ers feasibly could have cut ties with Ebukam without any severe consequences from a salary cap standpoint. (Luckily I don’t see that being a concern due to his play down the stretch, but the flexibility built into the contract should be acknowledged).
Willis was acquired midseason in 2020 from the New York Jets along with a 7th round pick in exchange for a 2022 6th round pick from the 49ers. Willis was a player whose athleticism has always stood out and whose physical traits are far more readily apparent than a refined bag of pass-rushing moves. This was the first “low risk/high reward” move that netted a plus return after the 49ers scrambled to find edge rushers after the losses of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa early in the season.
Willis recorded 3 sacks for the 49ers in 2020, with each of those coming in a game that saw him record 13 or fewer pass-rushing snaps. The potential was clearly there, as Willis possesses the natural speed and bend required to excel on the edge in the Wide 9 scheme frequently used by the 49ers. Obviously, a 6 game suspension to open the 2021 season (for a positive PED test) was less than ideal, but the fact the 49ers kept a depth piece on the roster despite that should tell you just how much they value Willis.
For the cost (essentially a pick swap in different drafts) and the fact that his role is mainly in a rotational capacity (Willis is averaging 9.7 pass-rush snaps per game this season), the value has been a net positive for the 49ers. Willis has been heating up as of late as well, recording a sack in each of the 49ers' last two games.
The newest of these “low risk/high reward” acquisitions, Omenihu, was acquired via trade from the Houston Texans just prior to the 2021 trade deadline. Like Willis, Omenihu was acquired for a 6th round pick in a future draft (2023), a pattern that suggests the 49ers are more willing to take a chance on developing a player they have NFL tape on, rather than the roll of the dice that comes with spending a late day 3 pick on an unproven college player.
While Omenihu hasn’t produced the immediate returns the aforementioned players have, he does still fit the athletic profile that has given the 49ers the success that the group above has. At 6’5 280 pounds, Omenihu offers tremendous versatility due to his size, which has been on display on multiple occasions where he has blown up run plays around the line of scrimmage.
He has yet to record a sack as a 49er and only has 9 pressures on 73 pass-rushing snaps, but despite that, patience should be demonstrated before jumping to conclusions about how effective Omenihu can be in both the present and future with this team. A bit more time to develop with Kocurek and Tapp might be just what Omenihu needs to progress into a serviceable member of a deep pass-rushing rotation for the foreseeable future.
To wrap this up, the 49ers brass has done a remarkable job working within the margins to surround their big-time players on the defensive line (Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead) with a group of above-average contributors. Their philosophy of banking on their coaching staff being able to develop undervalued players with plus athleticism has been a major success thus far and is something that is unlikely to change anytime soon as long as they have the proven commodity that is Kocurek guiding the defensive linemen on this team.