During his Saturday morning press conference, head coach Kyle Shanahan announced that defensive linemen Maurice Hurst suffered a torn bicep that requires surgery and will likely end his season.
This is a crushing blow to the depth the 49ers had amassed on the interior of their defensive line, as Hurst has been one of the best players on the field during the early stages of training camp thus far.
Now the 49ers have to pivot and find a way to replace the production they were counting on from Hurst, particularly as a pass rusher in the three-technique. Luckily for them, they won’t have to go outside of the organization in search of reinforcements immediately, as there are a handful of players currently on the roster who have the potential to fill the void left by Hurst’s absence.
Hassan Ridgeway is a player who immediately comes to mind for base-down packages. Ridgeway’s greatest strength is arguably his ability to eat up space and fill gaps in the run game, something he has done tremendously well through the first few practices of training camp.
That helps a bit for the depth concerns around the zero/one technique spots, but the toughest thing to replace in the absence of Hurst will be the finesse he brought rushing the passer from the three-technique spot. My initial guess would be that Kerry Hyder’s already good chances of making the final 53-man roster have now increased to a “very” good chance due to the ability he has to play both the edge and kick inside to the three tech.
We saw last season that DeMeco Ryans and Kris Kocurek got very creative with their defensive fronts on passing downs, particularly with the deployment of Arden Key. The success they found with lining up Key over guards in the three-technique can be directly correlated to the defensive lines' resurgence during the second half of the season. I would imagine there is a strong desire to replicate that strategy in 2022 with someone else.
Hyder is probably in the driver's seat for that kind of role, given his size and power. But, of course, it also doesn’t hurt that he is one of “Kocurek's guys” and has a long history with the 49ers' defensive line coach.
There are a couple of other players I could envision being utilized in that capacity, including Charles Omenihu, who has gotten work from the interior on passing downs during the first few camp practices.
Players like Jordan Willis and Samson Ebukam possess the needed power to kick inside if need be as well, which might lead to a committee approach when talking about the pecking order beyond Arik Armstead and Kevin Givens, who likely see the lion's share of reps from the interior on passing downs.
Another name to keep an eye on during camp is former first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche, who was signed this past week and brought a lot of energy on the field during his first couple of practices with the team.
Nkemdiche had an extremely impressive rep from the three-technique during the 11-on-11 portion of Friday’s practice, utilizing a rip move that saw him jump through the B gap while ripping through the guard and right tackle to explode into the backfield and create instant pressure on the play.
The 49ers have had a great track record in recent years with project players on the defensive line who have great traits but not the production to match, and Nkemdiche might be the next Kocurek project-turned success story.
Bottom line, there isn’t one individual player I would confidently point to that can replace Hurst, but the sum of all parts should be enough to weather the storm. Losing a player like Hurst is always going to sting, but this 49er defensive line is deep enough that it doesn’t drastically alter my outlook for the unit or the team as a whole for the coming season.