More of the same for beleaguered 49ers defense

More of the same for beleaguered 49ers defense

SANTA CLARA – Coach Chip Kelly said 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil's job is safe. And there are no changes to be expected within the 49ers’ 53-man roster, either.

On Sunday, it was just more of the same for a 49ers defense that is on pace to go down as one of the worst units in franchise history.

The 49ers surrendered 571 total yards to the New Orleans Saints in a 41-23 loss at Levi’s Stadium. And the league’s worst run defense got a little worse, too.

Kelly declined to place the blame on O’Neil for the 49ers’ issues on defense.

“I think it’s everybody’s fault on the defensive side,” Kelly said. “We have to do a better job of putting our players in position to make plays. That’s all of us. That’s me. That starts with the head coach.”

The 49ers became the first team in NFL history to allow a 100-yard rusher in seven consecutive games. New Orleans’ Mark Ingram rushed for 158 yards on 15 carries. And, for good measure, Tim Hightower added 87 yards on 23 attempts.

The 49ers entered the game allowing a league-worst 185 yards rushing per game. That average jumped up to 193.0 yards after giving up 248 yards on the ground to the Saints.

“It’s a terrible feeling every week,” 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock said. “It’s kind of like the same thing. We come back saying we need to stop this, we need to do this, and it keeps happening again. It sucks.

“We’re not executing. It’s simple stuff. It’s just happening every week. It’s some of the same things every week. It’s different, but it adding up to be the same.”

Veteran safety Antoine Bethea was asked if the coaching staff, primarily O’Neil, is to blame for the 49ers’ poor showings on defense.

“No, no, definitely not,” Bethea said. “No, I mean, we have some great coaches and they put us in the right positions. As players, we have to make plays. We can’t put this on the coaches. Not at all.”

And there are few options the 49ers have to change personnel.

“We have rotated guys through our defensive line,” Kelly said. "There’s not a lot of options at the inside linebacker spot. We lost Ray-Ray (Armstrong) for the year. We lost NaVorro (Bowman) for the year.

“(Outside linebacker) Aaron Lynch wasn’t available today, so a lot of the decisions that are made, in terms of what personnel we’re playing with on defense side of the ball, is really what’s available to us right now. I think everybody that dressed played.”

49ers set aside cap space with an eye to the future


49ers set aside cap space with an eye to the future

The first wave of free agency is over, and the 49ers struck quickly.

The club identified two players coach Kyle Shanahan tabbed as fits for his offense and they paid the money it took to get them.

General manager John Lynch said there were five teams seriously interested in free-agent running back Jerick McKinnon. Even more teams were going after center Weston Richburg, he said.

That drove up the prices on McKinnon and Richburg to the point that they rank behind only quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ($37 million) as taking up the most cap space among the 72 players currently under contract to the 49ers.

McKinnon and Richburg account for $10.5 million and $9.26 million, respectively, on the 49ers' salary cap. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman's deal takes up $6.175 million on the 49ers' cap this season.

The big spending to attract free agents to the team is likely over. The 49ers have $45.1 million in cap space, according to the NFL Players Association. That figure does not include a projected $8.3 million to sign their 2018 rookie class, according to overthecap.com.

The major spending for this offseason is over because the 49ers have apparently looked to the future and set aside cap space with the idea of retaining some of their own players whose contracts are winding down.

The first decisions for the future must occur by May 3, the deadline for picking up the fifth-year options on first-round picks from the 2015 draft. The 49ers have decisions to make on defensive lineman Arik Armstread and left guard Laken Tomlinson, who was acquired from Detroit in a trade just prior to the start of the 2017 regular season.

It is still unclear how or if Armstead’s skills fit into the 49ers’ defense. He opened last season at the team's pass-rush end before moving to the "big end," which also appears to be first-round pick Solomon Thomas' best position.

Tomlinson showed reasons for the 49ers to be optimistic about his future as his play got better as he acclimated to the offense. Among the guards already on the 49ers’ roster, Tomlinson appears to be the most likely to be a starter in 2018.

Presumptive starting safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next offseason. Ward’s fifth-year option deal of one-year, $8.526 million became fully guaranteed last Wednesday. But in order for the 49ers to make a multi-year commitment, Ward would likely have to prove he can remain healthy and available for a full season.

DeForest Buckner is likely the target for the next blockbuster contract extension. Buckner has emerged as one of the top young defensive linemen in the league. Next offseason will be the first time the 49ers are permitted to negotiate a multi-year extension with him.

With a scarcity of offensive linemen available in the draft and free agency, right tackle Trent Brown could be set to cash in with an enormous deal next offseason – either with the 49ers or some other team.

DL Arik Armstead
FS Jimmie Ward
SS Jaquiski Tartt
RT Trent Brown
LB Eli Harold
LG Laken Tomlinson
K Robbie Gould
P Bradley Pinion

DL DeForest Buckner
LT Joe Staley
OG Joshua Garnett
DL Ronald Blair
TE Garrett Celek
RB Matt Breida (RFA)
WR Kendrick Bourne (RFA)

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”