49ers defensive depth chart: Few starting roles secure before offseason


49ers defensive depth chart: Few starting roles secure before offseason

When the 49ers concluded their 2017 season, there were not a whole lot of question marks on defense heading into 2018.

This year, very few positions are settled on a defense under Robert Saleh’s direction that ranked 13th in the NFL in total yards allowed but 28th in points allowed and last in NFL history in creating takeaways. (Seriously, their seven turnovers forced were the worst in the recorded history of the NFL.)

At this point, there is only one sure thing at each level of the defense: DeForest Buckner will start at defensive tackle; Fred Warner will line up at middle linebacker, and Richard Sherman will be at left cornerback.

Every other position will feature some form of competition or staff decision on which spots fit which players the best.

Defensive line

DE: Arik Armstead
NT: D.J. Jones
DT: DeForest Buckner
DE: Solomon Thomas

The only change from the start of the 2018 season, for now, is the expected move to get younger with Jones at nose tackle in the 49ers’ base defense in place of veteran Earl Mitchell.

The 49ers appear likely to guarantee Armstead’s $9 million salary on the fifth-year option for the 2019 season because of his exceptional play on run downs.

The 49ers believe Thomas’ niche is as an inside player. He will definitely line up at defensive tackle to rush the passer on nickel downs. The 49ers need a true “Leo” to move Thomas inside on all downs.

Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair were the 49ers’ top edge rushers this season. The goal for the 49ers in March and April will be to acquire two upgrades for the team’s starting nickel defense – one in free agency and one in the draft. If the 49ers are comfortable with Dante Fowler’s character, they will go after him in free agency. Then, they would be assured of selecting either Nick Bosa or Josh Allen with the No. 2 overall pick.


MLB: Fred Warner
WLB: Elijah Lee

Two of the three linebackers positions are unsettled as the 49ers head into the offseason. Only Warner’s starting role is guaranteed after he performed admirably as a rookie.

The strong side linebacker position does not see a lot of action. If the 49ers were to select Allen with the No. 2 overall pick, he could play that spot on base downs and then line up on the edge in nickel situations. Mark Nzeocha was the team’s top player at strong side linebacker. Nzeocha, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, is best-suited as a backup and special-teams player. There is no indication at this point that Pita Taumoepenu can rise to become a starter.

Lee will unquestionably face a challenge in the offseason to hold onto the weak side position that he inherited when Reuben Foster was released following his arrest at the team hotel in Tampa. Veteran Malcolm Smith is well-versed in the defensive system, but he has not been able to remain healthy enough to be a factor. The 49ers are likely to increase the competition with a mid- to late-round draft pick or a veteran acquisition.

Defensive backs

LCB: Richard Sherman
RCB: Ahkello Witherspoon/Tarvarius Moore
Nickel: K’Waun Williams
FS: Adrian Colbert/Jaquiski Tartt /D.J. Reed
SS: Tartt/Marcell Harris

The only sure thing in the 49ers’ secondary is Sherman will return as a starter. The 49ers believe he will be even better in 2019 because he will have a full, healthy offseason to get in better condition and work on his game. Every other position is a toss-up.

Witherspoon and Moore are the team’s third-round draft picks from each of the past two years. Witherspoon struggled after entering his second NFL season as the starter. He played better before a knee injury sidelined him for the final three games. Moore showed a lot of promise in those final three games after spending most of the season working on his conversion from safety. Witherspoon and Moore could receive some additional competition, too.

Williams is solid as the team’s nickel back, but D.J. Reed also showed he is capable of stepping into a more prominent role.

The safety positions are completely up in the air. A year ago, there was no question Colbert and Tartt were the starters. Harris played very well late in the season and could win the starting job at strong safety. If that’s the case, Tartt would then be considered to start at free safety, along with Colbert and Reed.

The 49ers could add a veteran safety. Sherman said he would love to reunite with his former Seattle teammate, Earl Thomas, who will be a free agent. “I’m sure he’ll have a plethora of opportunities,” Sherman said late in the season, “and I’m sure we’re going to throw our hat in the ring.”

Also, do not forget about Jimmie Ward. The 49ers’ coaching staff loves his tenacity, as well as his versatility to play cornerback, nickel and free safety. Ward was considered one of the 49ers’ best 11 defensive players last season, and he graded out exceptionally high in the weeks before he sustained a season-ending fractured forearm. The only knock on Ward is his ability to remain healthy. Four of his five NFL seasons have ended with him going on injured reserve with broken bones. Ward is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. If the price is right, the organization would want to bring him back.

Here's how things look with the 49ers' offense, as they enter the 2019 offseason:

49ers offensive depth chart: Looking to add another playmaker


Jed York compares 49ers' journey through muck to 'Shawshank Redemption'


Jed York compares 49ers' journey through muck to 'Shawshank Redemption'

SANTA CLARA -- 49ers CEO Jed York was in a good mood Friday afternoon. He was sarcastic, funny and a bit self-deprecating during a 20-minute surprise interview session with reporters on hand for the final 49ers access period before the team leaves to play Super Bowl LIV in Miami.

It’s easy to find a smile with the 49ers doing so well. They dominated the regular season, rolled through the NFC playoffs and are now set to play the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 2 for the NFL title.

Just because the sun is now shining, it doesn't mean York has forgotten recent days with rainclouds overhead.

“I try to think every day about banners flying over the stadium asking for me to step down from the team,” York said with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “That’s always my favorite experience. No, I’m just focused on what we have to do. ... I am happy for our fans. Being in the Super Bowl seven years ago doesn't feel that long, except for the deep valley we went into in between.”

The 49ers now have a chance to do something great. They can add a sixth Lombardi Trophy to their collection with one more win this season.

They can do so right after emerging from a dark era that included two disappointing seasons to start the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch regime. York expected that when he gave his head coach and general manager six-year contracts. Looking back, York is glad he decided to offer such long-term deals. He wanted stability after several seasons of turmoil.

“I think I’m still paying, like, three coaches,” York said with a smile. “I thought, 'If we’re going to pay them, we might as well pay the same one for six years. Seems like a good idea to me.' It was clear that [Shanahan and I] had the vision and sync. I know that it was a six-year deal but, to me, it was two years of fixing what we needed to fix and then this was Year One of a four-year deal. It was important knowing that Kyle is someone that I can work with and John is someone I can work with to get through the tough stuff.”

The tough stuff. 49ers fans know all about that after suffering through some terrible seasons after the Jim Harbaugh era ended. York evoked “Shawshank Redemption” when describing the journey through bad times to reach this good one. The description was both apt and dead-on accurate.

“I made an Andy Dufresne reference earlier. Everybody wants to get to the beach at the end [of "Shawshank Redemption"], but no one wants to go through what he went through to get to the beach,” York said. “We had to get through that. Kyle and John were guys I knew could help us get through that. I wanted to send a message to our fans and our team that these guys are here. Not that we knew we weren’t going to win games, but it was unlikely that we were going to win from Day One and win the Super Bowl right away.

“I didn’t want people to wonder in Year Three if they were on the hot seat. No. It’s a six-year deal. We’ve walked into this thing together and we’re going to build this thing the right way. We didn’t make every right trade or draft pick. We didn’t sign the right free agents all the time, but it’s the culmination of everything we do. We want to build the right team. You have to have a long-term vision and, when you can make those long-term decisions the right way without worrying and trying to shortcut it, then you give yourself a chance.”

[RELATED: York hopes 49ers in position to receive White House invite]

York kept working through mistakes in both personnel and executive/coaching decisions, but didn’t lose sight of his goals trying to dig the 49ers out of a hole. He used more movies to describe how he was mentally able to get through it without shaken confidence.

“My philosophies are pretty simple. "The Godfather," "Bull Durham" and "Major League" make up my philosophy on life. And maybe Shawshank a little bit. But it goes back to Crash Davis talking to Nuke LaLoosh. You’re going to get lit up when you’re in the pros. You have to remain cocky. You have to remain confident. You can’t let them get you down. It’s hard to not let outside noise affect you, but you have to block it out. I think our team has done a great job blocking out the noise and I hope I’ve done the small [things] to help them focus on the task at hand.”

Richard Sherman believes chemistry will help 49ers in Super Bowl LIV

Richard Sherman believes chemistry will help 49ers in Super Bowl LIV

SANTA CLARA — All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman has taken part in 14 playoff games and two Super Bowls, but he believes that those experiences are overrated as an asset, whereas team chemistry is not. 

Many 49ers players have been influenced by Sherman’s leadership and character. Watching him interact in the locker room is akin to mayor working the room but without the negative connotations. He talks to everyone, offense, defense and special teams alike. 

While Sherman’s play on the field speaks for itself, coach Kyle Shanahan believes that what he represents in the locker that might be just as important. 

“I think he's meant a ton,” Shanahan said. “You can probably ask each guy and probably get a different answer. He's helped us the most by how he's played, but also having a guy that's been there and done that, especially having a young team.

“When you have a guy who guys have grown up watching a little bit, and being in big games like this and even starting out the year 8-0, going through that, and having guys who have kind of been at the top of the league halfway through, echo how tough it's going to be to keep that going. 

“Any time you have guys with experience who have been through it who are also one of your better players, it helps a ton.”

Someone who appreciates Sherman’s open door attitude is fellow All-Pro George Kittle.  

“Sherm's the best. He's such a leader," Kittle said. "He talks to every single person in the locker room. He's not one of those guys that sits in his locker space and just talks to guys around him. He's always around. 

“He wants to talk to everybody and he doesn't really force knowledge on you. He's definitely an open book. If you have questions for him, he'll sit and talk football with you all day. That's one thing that's incredible about him.” 

[RELATED: Jimmy G, Sherman using criticism as fuel]

The elements that Sherman believes are evident in most championship teams are what he sees in the 49ers' locker room. While it’s likely unintentional, his influence on the team's chemistry is part of what makes it so special. 

“Great players, great execution, great coaching and poise,” Sherman said. “There’s a sense of brotherhood for sure in the building. There's a trust in one another. There's a bit of adversity, you know, overcoming adversity throughout the season, and we've had all those ingredients. Then it's just guys that play hard for one another. They won't take no for an answer.”