Last season, the 49ers’ big offensive swing to land Christian McCaffrey had a transformative impact on their offense. Reading the thoughts of San Francisco’s brass on Javon Hargrave, it is clear the Niners are hopeful he can have the same influence on defense.
The 49ers diverted from their usual approach in spending big on an outside free agent, handing the defensive tackle a four-year, $84 million deal, with $40 million fully guaranteed.
In detailing how the deal came to pass, ESPN’s Nick Wagoner said that when CEO Jed York rubber-stamped the Niners, with little cap space with which to operate. He demanded San Francisco land a game changer, which is precisely what happened.
General manager John Lynch said:
Hargrave offers the 49ers something they did not have on the defensive side of the ball in 2022: a consistent disruptive force on the interior of the defensive line.
Per Wagoner, San Francisco’s defensive tackles combined for the fourth-fewest pressures in the NFL with 59. Hargrave had 53 by himself in a stellar final season with the Eagles. In addition, his 14.1% pressure rate over the last two seasons is the best among defensive tackles with at least 500 pass rush snaps.
Hargrave is a massive upgrade to the NFL’s best defense, which from a pass-rushing perspective has become perhaps too reliant on Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa.
The exorbitant cost of signing Hargrave limited the 49ers’ ability to make many supplementary moves in free agency and, as a result, they lack the same level of defensive depth they have enjoyed in previous years.
San Francisco does not have a convincing starting option on the edge across from Bosa. The 49ers will likely pin their hopes on Drake Jackson making a year-two leap.
Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are both Kris Kocurek reclamation projects whose ability to match the production of the departed Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and Jordan Willis remains to be seen. The Niners need productive snaps from both Ferrell and Bryant.
In the secondary, the Niners would be in a difficult spot at safety with an injury to either Tashaun Gipson or Talanoa Hufanga, and they are short of reliable reserves at corner behind Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir and Isaiah Oliver.
The 49ers will likely look to address their depth at edge and in the defensive backfield in the draft but, with no pick until the third round, they must do so with day two and day three selections. San Francisco has had great success finding steals in the draft during Lynch and Kyle Shanahan’s tenure, but consistently doing so is an extremely difficult feat to achieve.
San Francisco knows there is no guarantee of hitting on this year’s draft selections. But what Hargrave’s addition does is improve the odds of a defensive line featuring him, Arik Armstead and Bosa being able to negate any weaknesses in other areas of the defense if injuries expose a lack of depth.
The Niners have, for the most part, with Shanahan as head coach, been a pass rush over coverage team. Over the last two seasons, their defense has blossomed into one that can win with both. Hargrave will make it easier on the front if the rush needs to carry more of the burden.
In their first season following the departure of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, many may expect a regression from a defense that has lost talent in free agency. With Hargrave complementing the edge-rushing force of Bosa with the havoc he can wreak on the interior, that regression can be prevented and the 49ers’ defense can remain firmly among the NFL’s elite through defensive line dominance.
McCaffrey served as a force multiplier who made life significantly easier for the offense last season. Hargrave’s prowess as an interior pass rusher is such that he can fill the same role for a defense that does not have as much depth, but may now have an even higher ceiling with his signing.