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ESPN ranks each position on the 49ers' defense; says the LB group is the best in the NFL

This version is a little more optimistic than the Niners offense

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Let’s take a breather from all of the quarterback talk. Last week, ESPN ranked each position on offense, and we compared how the 49ers stack up against the rest of the NFC West. We’ll do the same today but flip over to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive interior:

  • ARI — 16
  • LAR — 1
  • SF — 7
  • SEA —15

This is where the 49ers made their most significant strides over the second half of the season, and you can point to one player for that. Arik Armstead finished the season in the top 10 in total pressures last year among all interior linemen, despite playing half a season there. However, Armstead was just outside of the top-10 in both sacks and run stops. The addition of Javon Kinlaw proves timely, as D.J. Jones was one of the best run defenders in the NFL.

Expect to see plenty of Charles Omenihu, Kerry Hyder, and even Drake Jackson lining up inside this year.

The Rams are No. 1, thanks to Mr. Helmet-swinger. The Cardinals are crossing their fingers that J.J. Watt makes it to the second half of the season, while Seattle added Shelby Harris to pair with Poona Ford. They should probably be a tick higher.


  • ARI — 25
  • LAR — 24
  • SF — 6
  • SEA — 31

This is the biggest discrepancy in the division at any position. Omenihu, Hyder, and Jackson will all get reps when Samson Ebukam and Nick Bosa need breathers. But No. 97 is why the 49ers are viewed so highly. This was supposed to be the year he took off since Bosa was removed from his ACL injury. It didn’t slow him down last year, which seems unfair. Bosa will be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.

That’s a steep drop-off to the rest of the division and should give 49er fans confidence that Trey Lance will have time in the pocket this year.

Off-ball linebacker:

  • ARI — 17
  • LAR — 5
  • SF — 1
  • SEA — 31

Arizona drafted linebackers in the first round in back-to-back years, and one looked lost last year as a rookie, while the other was moved to slot cornerback so he could get on the field during the preseason. So, things are going well for the Cardinals.

The Rams get a Bobby Wagner bump, but this isn’t the Wagner you remember. This ranking must include Leonard Floyd, or else it makes zero sense.

Kyle Shanahan will have the Seahawks’ linebackers chasing their tail in Week 2.

Azeez Al-Shaair and Dre Greenlaw would have an argument for the best linebackers in the division if not for their teammate. Some believe Fred Warner had an off year in 2021, which tells you how dominant he was in 2020.


  • ARI — 32
  • LAR — 13
  • SF — 18
  • SEA — 31

You have Jalen Ramsey. Then, in a tier or two below, Mooney Ward. And after that, Emmanuel Moseley might be the best option. The Rams brought back Troy Hill, but are relying on a cornerback they drafted in the third round in 2019, David Long, who has yet to amount to anything.

The Seahawks are starting two Day 3 rookies and a cast-off from the Jaguars at cornerback to give you an idea why they’re ranked second to last.

Arizona’s cornerbacks overperformed last year. They’re starting an undrafted free agent and a fourth-rounder from the 2021 draft alongside Byron Murphy, who is small and slow. Arizona traded for Trayvon Mullen Tuesday, who allowed as many touchdowns as he had interceptions during his Raiders career.

The 49ers don’t have much depth. Samuel Womack is the ultimate wildcard. He had an impressive preseason and will be called upon to start on the perimeter if there’s an injury. Womack has big shoes to fill, as K’Waun Williams was a difference-maker, but it looks like he’s up to the task.


  • ARI — 11
  • LAR — 23
  • SF — 22
  • SEA — 9

This is the one area where the 49ers will be deficient at on defense, with Jimmie Ward expected to land on the injured reserve and miss the first four games. Jaquiski Tartt ain’t walking through that door, and that means we’re looking at Talanoa Hufanga as the best safety on the field for the Niners.

I’m a believer in Tarvarius Moore, but he’s coming off a torn Achilles and can be an inconsistent tackler. But he’s an upgrade over George Odum or Dontae Johnson. The 49ers are hoping whoever starts in Ward’s spot can hold the fort down until he returns without costing the Niners big plays or, worse, a game.

As you can see, the Rams have question marks of their own at the position. I think the world of Budda Baker. Arizona’s ranking might even be low, as Jalen Thompson showed promise.

Seattle should be ranked highly because of Quandre Diggs. We know who Jamal Adams is, and that’s far from a coverage safety.