Expectations are high for the 49ers' defensive unit after a 2021 season that saw them finish with the third-fewest total yards allowed in the NFL. Both the 49ers' biggest move of free agency and first pick in the draft went to an already stout defense.
Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is back after head coach calls came his way in the offseason. A great 49ers defense looks to have improved and will face their first test Sunday in Chicago against the Bears.
Here are the five players to watch on the 49ers' defense:
CB Charvarius Ward
In recent history, the 49ers haven't been known to make big moves at the cornerback position. Even when the team signed Richard Sherman in 2018, he was entering his age-30 season and rehabbing from a torn Achilles. Ward is just 26 years old and signed a contract worth just north of what Sherman signed for. Sunday will mark Ward's anticipated debut in what hopes to be a deeper cornerback group because of his signing.
The Bears won't present the biggest threat at wideout that Ward will see this season, but that doesn't mean the pressure isn't on the prized free agent to perform out of the gate.
DE Drake Jackson
Jackson was the 49ers' first selection in the 2022 NFL Draft and will likely be in heavy rotation with Samson Ebukam on the other side of Nick Bosa. Jackson impressed in the preseason, specifically against Minnesota, where he had three pressures and two tackles against the Vikings. The 49ers are hoping Jackson can add top-end depth to an already deep defensive end unit, and Sunday will be the first real look at the 21-year-old.
S Talanoa Hufanga
The 49ers opted to move on from Jaquiski Tartt in favor of Talanoa Hufanga after an up-and-down rookie season from the second-year safety. Hufanga is expected to play closer to the line, but with Jimmie Ward out, we could see Hufanga play over the top as well. Hufanga will also be tasked to cover Cole Kmet, the Bears' second-most targeted receiver in 2021.
LB Dre Greenlaw/Azeez Al-Shaair
Dre Greenlaw was the second linebacker behind Fred Warner but was injured early in 2021. Azeez Al-Shaair replaced Greenlaw and played at a high level for the rest of the season. Greenlaw and Al-Shaair played in the same game just twice (Weeks 1 and 11) last regular season. The most important thing to watch with these two is how they will be rotated in packages that use just two linebackers.
CB Samuel Womack
The 49ers' streak at hitting on their fifth-round picks seems to have continued with Womack. He was one of the biggest standouts over both camp and the preseason, and he earned the nickel back position over Darqueze Dennard. Sunday will be a good first test for Samuel as he will see a healthy amount of Darnell Mooney (43.6 percent of Mooney's snaps in 2021 came out of the slot), who led the Bears in receptions and targets last season.
Which defender are you looking forward to watching?