The 49ers have a long history of taking gambles on players with checkered injury histories, and they have done so again this offseason, signing edge rusher Austin Bryant to a one-year deal.
With limited salary cap space and a need for edge depth, Bryant’s low-risk signing was the kind of move the 49ers needed to make to give themselves more alternatives in that area behind Nick Bosa and the other projected starter, Drake Jackson.
While the Niners won’t take much of a hit if Bryant does not pan out, their decision to put faith in him to stay healthy is one that has the potential to backfire.
Bryant played only 10 games across his first two seasons owing to a pectoral injury, and featured in nine last season.
Yet in 2021 he played 14 games, and his tape from that season appears likely to have been what convinced San Francisco to bet on Bryant to show what would be surprising durability.
Bryant’s arms measured in the 86th percentile, per MockDraftable, in the pre-draft process prior to this selection by the Lions in 2019 and when he was healthy in 2019 he used that length extremely well.
Really impressive hand usage here to knock an off-balance Riley Reiff to the turf, quick close to bring down Burrow. pic.twitter.com/wXGWE3pwwY— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 23, 2023
Indeed, his hand usage was key in the success Bryant had in getting to the quarterback, with the rip move a key part of his pass-rush arsenal.
Austin Bryant. Went back and watched his splash plays from 2021 and you can understand why the 49ers have taken a chance here.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 23, 2023
Good get-off, uses his hands well with the chop and the rip here, shows the ability to bend and flatten. High effort play here too. pic.twitter.com/dFJz6EkG5b
He paired his active and powerful hands with impressive flexibility. Bryant has the bend to turn the corner and flatten to the quarterback but has also shown his ability to win the bull rush, as he did on his half sack against the Browns in 2021.
This is the most impressive of Austin Bryant's sacks from 2021. Again goes for the chop and then the rip, does an excellent job of bending around the edge and flattening to bring down Wilson. pic.twitter.com/GB3tjhM3Hc— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 23, 2023
Big-time push with the bull rush from Bryant. Blake Hance (62) never even given an opportunity to anchor. pic.twitter.com/U8Pj3P3FjX— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 23, 2023
Bryant fell down the pecking order with Detroit last season, as the Lions turned to a trio of rookies on the defensive line in the form of number two overall pick Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Paschal and James Hudson.
That Bryant lost out on snaps because of the emergence of first-year players reflects poorly on him, as does Detroit’s lack of effort to re-sign him.
Still, a look at his tape from his best season reveals clear potential that has been left untapped, predominantly because of injuries. With Bosa and, likely, Jackson set to start in 2023, Bryant will be under no pressure to step into a prominent role right away.
Working with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek should only benefit a player who has showcased traits to suggest he can consistently succeed at this level.
A rotational role on this defense is arguably the best situation in which to prove he can. There’s plenty to point to the signing of Bryant being a shrewd one, but vindication for the 49ers is contingent on both the team and player enjoying injury fortune that has often escaped both.