Every year the NFL features breakout players who come out of nowhere and make a name for themselves. Wide receiver Hunter Renfrow on the Raiders is a good example. In addition, cornerback A.J. Terrell went from allowing 61.9% of his targets to be completed to 37.1% and an All-Pro.
The Niners had a mini breakout star in Azeez Al-Shaair, who proved to be one of the most valuable linebackers in the NFL last season. Only Micah Parsons had more tackles for loss at the position, and 13 of those were sacks.
Who are the potential breakout players on the 49ers' defense this year? Let’s take a look at two under-the-radar candidates.
DL - Charles Omenihu
Despite already having a lucrative contract, Arik Armstead should count as a breakout player in 2021 for how he played in the second half of the season. But, of course, it took him switching positions to do so.
Who will be this year’s Arden Key is what this question feels like. Do you trust Javon Kinlaw or Kemoko Turay to stay healthy? Does Kerry Hyder have anything left in the tank?
In his second year with Kris Kocurek and the assumed starter until second-round pick Drake Jackson gets up to speed, it’s fair to assume Samson Ebukam will take another step in his development.
I’m going with Charles Omenihu, though. He was a fifth-round pick in the 2019 draft and turns 25 in August. Omenihu has the size, athleticism, and the first step needed to excel as a pass rusher in this league. Best of all, his fit is ideal for the Niners.
It was only 70 pass-rushing snaps, but Omenihu generated pressure on 16.4% of those attempts, including hitting the quarterback 10% of the time. I’m not going to extrapolate that info and say Omenihu will morph into Nick Bosa (15% pressure percentage last year) with over 300 pass-rushing snaps.
But the 49ers need a player who can kick inside and overwhelm guards. Omenihu, or whoever breaks out, will be the beneficiary of 1-on-1’s every game playing alongside Bosa and Armstead. I’m going with Omenihu.
S George Odum
Linebacker is set in stone with Al-Shaair, Fred Warner, and Dre Greenlaw. It would take another injury for someone to step up, and that’s the last thing we want to see.
During the past few seasons, 49er safeties have had ample opportunities to make plays on the ball. The glaring dropped interception in the NFC Championship is still on the forefront of your mind, but it feels as though the combination of safeties has dropped at least five interceptions since 2019.
George Odum is healthy, a veteran, and has starting experience in the NFL. He’ll likely be a special teams ace for the Niners, but he’ll have a chance to start in the defensive backfield. This is more about the opportunity that’ll present itself than Odum turning into an All-Pro.
The speed on the 49ers' defense creates problems for opposing offenses. Of course, it helps to have that Bosa guy up front and Warner diagnosing your passing game over the middle.
Odum did allow three touchdowns last season on 18 targets, but he also had three pass breakups and an interception. He’ll have a shot to make plays if he's around the ball. The Colts are a lot different schematically than the 49ers, so it’s difficult to glean what Odum did in Indy and see how that’ll transfer to San Francisco.
My thought process is knowing he’s a special-teamer, Odum won’t be afraid to mix it up in the box and be aggressive in run support.
That mindset should help Odum as a blitzer too. Odum ran a 4.45 40-yard dash, so he has plenty of speed to burn. Also, having four years of experience in the NFL and not coming off a season-ending injury should give him a leg-up on his competition.