Imminent changes are coming to the 49ers’ defensive line, and one player it seems they may struggle to retain is defensive end Samson Ebukam.
Signed to a two-year deal ahead of the 2021 season, Ebukam is not one of the leading lights on one of the better defensive fronts in the NFL but has provided dependable play from his starting defensive end spot across the last two campaigns.
Ebukam has tallied 9.5 sacks during his time with San Francisco, decent production on a defensive line that rotates significantly and employs Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa as its predominant pass-rushing force.
But those numbers make the money he could apparently make on the open market difficult to justify. According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Ebukam is a name that generated a lot of buzz at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and he could receive $10 million plus annually in free agency.
If the bidding for his services reaches that point, the 49ers will almost certainly drop out, leaving a team already light on edge depth with another spot to fill at that position.
While the production may not be eye-popping, Ebukam will be difficult to replace.
Ebukam is a reliable run defender who consistently excels at setting the edge and disengaging from blocks to find the football. Though his sack numbers only increased from 4.5 to 5 from 2021 to 2022, there has been evident growth in his play as a pass rusher.
Displaying a consistently impressive get-off, speed to power transfer when bull rushing appeared to come much more naturally and more regularly for Ebukam in 2022, with his performance against both Tyron Smith and Tyler Smith in the Divisional Round win over the Dallas Cowboys an illustration of his strides in that area.
Ebukam (56) may not have been the headline act on the 49er DL, but he played his best football down the stretch last season. I felt he was very impressive against the Cowboys, consistently generating push and making life difficult for Dak in the pocket. pic.twitter.com/3UiZG1rg9U— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 7, 2023
Ebukam does not win purely with power. However, his hand usage has become an increasingly varied and important part of his game, with the rip move an established favorite of his.
Ebukam had success with his bull rush a lot more consistently last season. Really nice explosiveness here, jarring Havenstein backwards and the disengaging with the rip move to redirect to Stafford. pic.twitter.com/57DtAJmGmS— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 7, 2023
Goes with the rip again here against Noteboom and follows it open with excellent spin move at the top of his rush to get to Stafford and force the fumble. pic.twitter.com/FUASBJl44H— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 7, 2023
Though he is not known as a particularly bendy pass rusher, Ebukam has also more recently shown more flexibility in flattening his rush to the quarterback and often effectively deployed a spin move when unable to initially turn the corner.
Bend isn't one of Ebukam's primary traits, but he made improvements in turning the corner last season. This is a decent example, even if he ends up on the ground. He and Bosa force Dalton to step up into pressure and the Saints are flagged for holding. pic.twitter.com/Xq4p8CoxsT— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 7, 2023
One of the more underrated aspects of Ebukam’s game is his ability to create disruption when serving as the penetrator on stunts where Charles Omenihu loops round the edge.
Such stunts have allowed the 49ers to manufacture pass rush without relying on Bosa, and losing both the exponents of a weapon in San Francisco’s pass-rush arsenal that has frequently delivered results in key moments would leave a significant void for the Niners to fill.
There seems a pretty good chance the 49ers will lose both Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu, the chief architects of this Geno Smith fumble in the playoffs.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) March 7, 2023
Big voids to fill in the D-Line rotation if they do. pic.twitter.com/P2BlCA8Zwb
For as much as they were dissatisfied with his conditioning down the stretch, the 49ers will hope Drake Jackson can build on his encouraging rookie flashes and help them plug the gap. San Francisco may also offer a more prominent role to Jordan Willis, who will likely be much cheaper to re-sign than both Ebukam and Omenihu.
With Kris Kocurek’s track record of developing defensive linemen, the 49ers have reason for confidence they can afford to let Ebukam walk and still win with strength in depth on the defensive line.
But sustained success up front would be easier with Ebukam remaining on the roster. He may be far from the headline act on the defensive line, but his seemingly prospective exit presents one of the bigger headaches for San Francisco this offseason.