There are many examples of specific transactions that you can point to that highlight the fantastic job that John Lynch and the 49ers front office have done since taking over a 2-14 football team five years ago. From drafting All-Pros to signing impact players in free agency, the track record for this regime is strong.
What I would like to focus on for this piece, however, are two very similar in-season trades made over the last couple of seasons, moves that flew largely under the radar each time both transactions were announced. Despite not being headline-grabbing acquisitions at the time, both of these transactions directly led to the 49ers upsetting the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers on the road in last year's postseason.
I am referring to the 2020 trade that saw the 49ers acquire Jordan Willis and a 2021 7th round pick from the New York Jets in exchange for a 2022 6th round pick from San Francisco, and the 2021 trade just before the deadline that brought Charles Omenihu to the 49ers in exchange for a 2023 sixth-round pick.
Before we dive into the specifics, let’s take a look at the blueprint for each of these moves. On the surface, both players that were acquired were above-average athletes with a set of physical skills that hadn’t been fully tapped into yet on their respective teams, both coming from franchises that were quite simply not good teams at the times these deals went down.
Both players were also acquired on the latter stages of a rookie deal, which in turn allowed the 49ers to bring them in on a very low cap number while not absorbing any significant financial risk in the coming years either.
Lynch and this front office identified a formula to target edge rushers on bad teams that possessed supreme athletic ability, even if the pass-rushing production had yet to come to fruition at the NFL level.
Their plan was to get these players on an already loaded defensive line and hand the keys to the experiment over to the best defensive line coach in the business in Kris Kocurek, who likely salivated at the chance to work with players possessing such elite athletic traits at the position.
Now when these moves were made, I’d imagine the 49ers' front office targeted these players with the expectation that they would be able to serve in a rotational role and insulate the depth on an already stacked defensive line.
What makes these moves so incredible is that Willis and Omenihu not only provided the depth the 49ers' front office was seeking, but they also ended up being major pieces in two road playoff wins against two of the 49ers' biggest rivals. The 49ers do not win in Dallas or Green Bay without these two players. Here is why.
Let’s start with the Dallas game and why the significance is even more amplified, particularly for Omenihu. I don’t need to waste any time explaining the significance of the first 49ers-Cowboys playoff meeting in 25 years and the pressure that comes with playing in that rivalry in the postseason.
For those who don’t know, Omenihu is from the Houston, Texas area, and played his college ball at the University of Texas before being drafted by his hometown Texans. The former Longhorn was returning to his home state and doing so under the bright lights of the NFL playoffs.
Omenihu finished this game with six pressures, contributed to two sacks, and a forced fumble, pacing the 49ers defense in those categories as they held the number one offense in the league to 17 points on their home field.
The statistics alone are impressive, but what took this performance to the next level for Omenihu wasn’t just that he recorded the majority of this production against a left tackle who is likely going to end up in the hall of fame. What really stands out about this was the way Omenihu stepped up when Nick Bosa was forced to exit the game just before halftime with a concussion.
Let’s take a look at some of Omenihu’s big plays from the second half of this football game, starting with the strip sack he recorded on Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott with 1:34 to play in the third quarter.
Dallas faced a 1st & 10 from their own 30-yard line, and Omenihu lined up at the 9 technique, matching up with Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith on this play. Omenihu is able to utilize his hands and speed to bend around the edge and beat Smith before erupting into the pocket to knock the ball out of Prescott’s hands as he brought him to the ground.
Here’s the end zone angle. Watch the way Omenihu is able to dip around the edge to beat a left tackle who is likely well on his way to being enshrined in the hall of fame once his career is over.
Even on the plays where Omenihu didn’t outright win his rep, he still managed to affect the play in a positive way for the 49ers' defense. With 5:39 remaining in the third quarter, Dallas faced a 2nd & 4 from their own 34-yard line.
Once again, Omenihu is going to be engaging with Smith, who at first glance appears to handle Omenihu on this rep. What makes this play special is Omenihu’s ability to get one last push below the pad level, generating enough leverage that it knocked Smith back into Prescott as the Cowboys quarterback stepped up to release the football.
This led to an errant throw and an incompletion on the play.
With 2:29 left in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys trailed 23-17 but were in possession of the ball, marching into 49ers territory. On a 1st & 10 from the San Francisco 46-yard line, Prescott is flushed out of the pocket by a combination of pressure from Omenihu, Kevin Givens, and Arik Armstead.
As Prescott attempts to escape the rush, he is contacted by Givens before Omenihu comes in to finish off the play and generate a sack in the backfield for a loss. The initial pressure off the left side and the relentless hunger from Omenihu to continue on this play led directly to a negative play for the Cowboys' offense in a huge spot.
Omenihu also registered a pressure late in the second quarter with the Cowboys offense in a two-minute offense, forcing Prescott to bail out of the pocket and throw an incomplete pass downfield while rolling to his right.
Omenihu left a huge impact in this game, and it’s hard to envision the 49ers generating the consistent level of pressure that they did in this contest without his contributions. Speaking of generating pressure, let’s take a look at what Willis did in this game too. I’ll start with what was probably his most impactful rep of the game, given the immediate events that followed.
With 6:15 remaining in the third quarter, the Cowboys faced a 2nd & 29 from their own 19-yard line. Willis is lined up on the left side of the Dallas offensive line and engages with Smith as he attempts to make his way into the pocket towards Prescott.
Willis is able to generate enough power that he drives Smith back into the pocket and then makes contact with Prescott as he attempts to throw a hitch route to the numbers on the far side.
The contact from Willis alters the football path as it comes out of Prescott’s hands, and instead of hitting his receiver, the ball is picked off by 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams.
Here is another view from the end zone angle, slowed down a bit to better illustrate how the contact from Willis affected this throw.
The 49ers' offense scored a touchdown on the next play on a Deebo Samuel rushing touchdown, one you might fondly remember as Samuel confidently called for the ball for a while, talking to Kyle Shanahan as he went from the sideline towards the huddle.
This interception was the ultimate momentum swing in this game, and the touchdown that followed created a double-digit deficit that allowed the 49ers to hold their lead until the final as they escaped Dallas with a win.
Willis also had an eye-popping rep against Smith in this game, where he put the All-Pro tackle on his back with a ferocious bull rush off the edge.
Watch this pass rushing rep from Jordan Willis out of the 9 tech— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) July 25, 2022
Willis puts Tyron Smith (who will likely be in the hall of fame when his career is over) on his back during a playoff game pic.twitter.com/KBhewJQY7c
Another view from the end zone angle.
This is an insane feat given the skill level that Smith possesses. To do that to a player of his caliber on that stage speaks volumes about Willis’ ability. Willis certainly made his presence felt in this game while rushing the passer, but the greatest impact he had during these playoffs came the following week in Green Bay while on special teams duty.
Willis didn’t record a single pressure and registered just one tackle in the divisional round, despite this he was responsible for two of the most important plays of the 2021 season and the start of what will go down as one of the most memorable plays in the storied history of the 49ers franchise.
With the 49ers trailing 3-0 as the first half drew to a close, the Packers rolled out their special teams unit to attempt a 39-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in the second quarter.
What happens next is pure brilliance and takes an extremely high level of cohesion to pull off. Willis is going to chop the outside arm of the blocker responsible for securing the D-Gap, and as a result, opened up a lane for Jimmie Ward to burst through the gap and block the field goal attempt.
Here is a close-up view of the arm chop by Willis that freed up Ward.
This kept the deficit at a single score going into the break and provided the 49ers a level of momentum that is impossible to quantify but evident to anyone watching this battle on the frozen tundra.
Willis saved his best for last in this one, with the Packers lining up for a punt from their own 12-yard line with a little over five minutes left in the fourth quarter. At this point in the game, the 49ers' offense hadn’t scored a touchdown yet, and the 49ers found themselves trailing 10-3, with their window to tie this one up, shrinking by the second.
Even if they get the ball back there, they had yet to string together any kind of consistency on offense, and the chances of them driving the length of the field in less than five minutes were less than ideal. They needed a splash play in the worst way, and they ended up getting one before the offense ever had the chance to take the field.
With Packers punter Corey Bojorquez back to field the punt, Willis was able to bull rush the long snapper with so much force that he got all the way inside the Green Bay five-yard line before Bojorquez was able to get the punt off cleanly.
Willis is able to fully extend his left arm and get a hand on the ball, leading it to pop up and cause a momentary moment of confusion where it appeared nobody on the field had the slightest clue of where the ball was or where it was headed.
As the ball lands on the numbers on the far side, 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga is able to scoop up the ball and run into the end zone untouched to give the 49ers the touchdown they so desperately needed.
Here is a view from the end zone angle, where you get a much better glimpse of Willis bull rushing the long snapper and becoming the catalyst for a play that immediately cemented itself in 49ers postseason lore.
This play not only had major implications for the 49ers' playoff lives, but it also was a historical play that was instantly stamped in the NFL record books. That play was the latest game-tying or go-ahead blocked kick/punt in NFL playoff history and the second latest special teams touchdown in NFL playoff history.
With two special teams reps, Willis created what became a 10-point swing in favor of the 49ers, taking three points off the board for Green Bay while adding six (plus the extra point) for the 49ers.
Those two plays were literally the difference between the 49ers being sent home or not. Willis and the impact he made on special teams in this game left an entire generation of fans with fond memories of the frozen night at Lambeau Field, when the underdog 49ers sent Aaron Rodgers and the number one seed in the NFC packing on the back of an unthinkable special teams play with their backs against the wall.
When Lynch and the front office made the decision to pull the trigger on these two trades, I don’t think anyone could have envisioned the return. They ultimately ended up netting two sixth-round picks.
One thing we know for certain, however, is that the 49ers walked away from each of these transactions victorious, turning two late-round selections into a pair of playoff victories that will not be forgotten any time soon.