The San Francisco 49ers defense had its share of issues against the Las Vegas Raiders offense on Friday during joint practice, but they have a chance to reverse course in a bigger setting - their first preseason game. While the stars of the 49ers are still intact, it has plenty of questions in terms of depth.
Sunday will be the first look at that depth as the starters likely won’t see much playing time—if any—at all. These are the three players on the defense that could start filling in those missing puzzle pieces:
DL Javon Kinlaw
Kinlaw seems the healthiest he’s been since the 49ers used the 14th overall pick on the defensive tackle in 2020. The early returns on Kinlaw through the first few weeks of camp have been good, but the bigger story has been staying healthy.
After a solid rookie season where he played in 14 games and showed flashes, Kinlaw struggled to stay on the field, playing just ten combined games in 2021 and 2022 while dealing with various knee injuries. 2023 will be a make-or-break year as the 49ers declined his fifth-year option, making him a pending free agent after this season.
With the addition of Javon Hargrave, Kinlaw will have a reduced role in 2023. Given his past health issues, that could be considered a good thing.
EDGE Clelin Ferrell
Sunday will be a revenge preseason game for the former Raider, who Las Vegas took with the fourth-overall pick in the 2019 draft. The Raiders declined to pick up his fifth year option, making him a free agent at the conclusion of the 2022 season.
The 49ers went from plenty of depth on the edge to it being one of the more significant unknowns of the defense in one offseason. Charles Omenihu, Samson Ebukam, and Jordan Willis have all left the team. The signing of Hargrave does help the pass rush, but in terms of the edges, it’s lighter than what 49ers fans have come to expect.
With Nick Bosa’s contract situation not yet resolved, Ferrell and Drake Jackson have gotten first-team reps and reportedly done well with those reps. Ferrell will likely see the lion’s share of the snaps on Sunday, with Jackson missing practice the past few days as the 49ers hope the camp success translates to in-game.
S Ji’Ayir Brown
The 49ers’ first selection of this year’s draft will make his professional (preseason) debut on Sunday in Las Vegas.
Brown has had a quiet camp, but he’ll have plenty to prove as the 49ers plan to use him in rotation with Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson. The 49ers like Brown’s ability both in the secondary and around the line of scrimmage but from a camp observation, he has yet to find his footing.
Sunday will be 49ers fans' first look at the third-round pick and Brown will probably like to make a good first impression.