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.
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.
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: