The 49ers defensive line is in an ideal position to be retooled during the upcoming offseason. The foundational pieces are already in place with Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, which makes it much more feasible to plug players into specialized roles along the defensive front.
With Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu set to hit free agency, the 49ers now have a glaring hole opposite Bosa. Ebukam and Omenihu combined to create 30 percent of the 49ers defensive pressures in 2022, leaving San Francisco to find a way to replace their second and third most productive pass rushers from a season ago.
Making things slightly more complicated is the fact that the 49ers have an in-house heir apparent in Drake Jackson. The 49ers have an abundance of belief in Jackson and the athletic traits he possesses.
The problem is that he is still very raw, and it’s unclear how quickly Jackson’s development will allow him to produce at the consistent rate San Francisco will need in the interim.
That means finding a player who can contribute right away, while also not suffering from having a time-share with Jackson as the 49ers get him the requisite reps he will need for his development. Getting a veteran who can take Jackson under his wing and help mentor the talented young edge rusher would be the most ideal outcome possible.
One player who potentially checks all of those boxes is Justin Houston, who just spent the 2022 season with the Baltimore Ravens. Houston recently turned 34 and has over a decade of NFL experience under his belt that includes over 100 sacks and four Pro Bowl nods.
Baltimore also utilized Houston in a role similar to how the 49ers could, with 330 of his 423 snaps coming on passing downs. Houston is a player who could come in from day one and give the 49ers a reliable and consistent threat off the edge in third and long. He’d also have the luxury of staying fresh with the 49ers deep rotation of pass rushers they seem to stockpile year after year.
While Houston is certainly on the back nine of a long and accomplished career, he is still an impact player who proved he has plenty left in the tank during his most recent season with the Ravens. Houston recorded a 13.7 percent pressure rate to go along with 9.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss during the 2022 season.
The only logical pushback to bringing in a player like Houston would be age. But whatever concerns exist about the athleticism are more than made up for with the mental edge that comes with having 12 years of experience chasing down NFL quarterbacks.
Houston repeatedly showed the ability to use hesitation to manipulate his pass rushes, keeping opposing offensive linemen off balance with a change of timing and direction. I put together a couple of cut ups to highlight how Houston is as effective as ever at getting home with his pass rush.
This first one shows Houston using a stutter step before finishing with an inside swipe to secure a path to the quarterback and deliver a decisive blow to Joe Flacco in the pocket.
This next one is a little more subtle, but you can see how the hesitation deployed by Houston throws off the timing of the tackle trying to engage him in has pass set.
Houston has a deep bag to lean on, but he also still has the power and strength to win with a straight bull rush as well. This is from week eight in Tampa Bay last year, watch what Houston does to Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith on this rep.
Houston had a cap hit of 3.5 million dollars in 2022, and Spotrac currently has his market value listed at 5.3 million dollars in average annual value. That is well within the 49ers budget, and beyond worth what they would be getting in return, given all the boxes Houston would check for them.
This one is a no-brainer. Bring in the veteran pass rusher who can help you win now while also serving as a role model of sorts for the young edge rusher with untapped potential. Houston gets the chance to compete for a ring, and the 49ers get a proven commodity opposite Bosa.