If you follow the soccer team in which the 49ers own almost a 50 percent share, Leeds United – and there are a host of reasons why you probably don’t – you’ll know that, if they manage to stave off Premier League relegation, they’ll likely be investing heavily in the spine of the team having once again proven all too easy to break down this season.
Leeds have conceded 39 goals in, 2022-23, the fifth-most in the Premier League. While their lack of defensive solidity may be in stark contrast to the strength the 49ers have consistently shown in stopping other teams during the Kyle Shanahan era, San Francisco appears this offseason to be similarly focused on strengthening the spine of the defense.
San Francisco’s defense finished the 2022 season first in Football Outsiders DVOA, but there are looming issues to address in the middle of it at every level.
Linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw form what is undoubtedly the premier linebacker duo in the NFL. However, with strong side linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair set for unrestricted free agency, the 49ers may be keen to shore up their depth behind Warner and Greenlaw.
More pressing is the need for depth on the interior of the defensive line, which was lacking throughout 2022. That requirement was underlined in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, in which the defensive interior often struggled against the Eagles’ outstanding offensive line.
Then there is the safety position. San Francisco did not invest much in it last season, but the decision to start 2021 fifth-round pick Talanoa Hufanga and also roll with veteran Tashaun Gipson – signed in August – after an injury to Jimmie Ward paid substantial dividends.
Though he is a boom-bust player, Hufanga’s booms earned him first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods, while Gipson’s five interceptions were tied for the second-most in the NFL.
But Gipson and Ward, who adjusted admirably to the role of nickel corner when he returned from injury, are both headed for free agency, and there has also been talk about the former calling it a career.
Even if Gipson does return, the 32-year-old will likely do so on a short-term deal, meaning the 49ers need a more definitive answer for the years to come.
While it is important not to read too much into pre-draft meetings, the prospects San Francisco has met with on the defensive side indicate an understanding of the need to invest in the defensive spine this offseason.
The 49ers are confirmed to have met with seven defensive backs at the Combine, among them safeties Jammie Robinson, Ji’Ayir Brown and JL Skinner.
At linebacker, they have met with Indiana’s Cam Jones and Purdue’s Jalen Graham. On the defensive line, the standout names with whom they have met are Zacch Pickens of South Carolina and West Virginia’s Dante Stills, interior defenders who figure to have a good chance of still being on the board when the Niners pick in round three.
There is a potential glaring hole on offense at right tackle if Mike McGlinchey departs, and the 49ers could also use help at tight end.
But the bulk of San Francisco’s needs are on a defense that has arguably been the class of the NFL for the last four seasons, with first Robert Saleh and then DeMeco Ryans overseeing it.
The challenge the 49ers face in 2023 is to maintain their position with Ryans gone and Steve Wilks taking the helm on defense. Reinforcing the spine will go a long way to achieving that aim, and San Francisco’s Combine activity suggests that may well a goal for the franchise in the draft.