49ers

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

shermwitherspoon.jpg
USATSI

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.

Linebackers

SLB: TBA
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

 

Rookie Javon Kinlaw's approach reminds 49ers veteran Dee Ford of Nick Bosa

Rookie Javon Kinlaw's approach reminds 49ers veteran Dee Ford of Nick Bosa

Veteran edge rusher Dee Ford is picking up on some distinct Nick Bosa vibes from 49ers rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.

“(He is) everything you want to see in a rookie,” Ford said of Kinlaw on Thursday during a video call with Bay Area reporters.

“He wants to be a sponge. He wants to soak everything up, and he wants to learn. He reminds me of Bosa when he came in.”

The 49ers have hit the practice field for only walk-through sessions for the first two weeks of training camp. That changes over the weekend when the club has two non-padded practices before putting the pads on Monday for the first time in Santa Clara.

Bosa came to the 49ers as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft. Kinlaw, a South Carolina defensive tackle, was chosen with the No. 14 overall selection.

Ford said watching Kinlaw’s quiet, determined approach reminds him of Bosa, who won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. Ford said he would expect nothing less from a person general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan bring to the organization.

“When you’re a first-round draft pick, you can come in and you can … be a little entitled,” Ford said. “That’s not him. That’s not his DNA. He fits in well with the guys. When you come here. John and Kyle, they get specific players. Nine times out of 10, if they got them, they brought them here and they know type of character they have.

"So far, he’s been everything as promised. He’s going to get better.”

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Kinlaw and all newcomers to the 49ers have the additional challenge this season of missing out on the offseason program and organized team activities. Ford recognizes it will not be easy for Kinlaw to make the transition from high-level college football to the NFL.

[RELATEDGeorge Kittle, 49ers get to only reasonable destination with extension]

“He’s behind the 8-ball,” Ford said. “Every rookie is because of the virus. You can’t get OTAs. OTAs were crucial for me, especially with learning a new position my rookie year. I can only imagine where his mind is right now. But he’s handling it very well. He’s handling it really good.”

49ers' K'Waun Williams describes challenge of covering George Kittle

49ers' K'Waun Williams describes challenge of covering George Kittle

What makes 49ers All-Pro tight end George Kittle a nightmare for defensive coordinators are the dilemmas he creates.

He has the size and strength to block defensive ends. Linebackers cannot keep up with him in the passing game. And he can physically overwhelm most defensive backs.

K’Waun Williams, who has established himself as one of the top nickelbacks in the league, knows what it’s like to go up against Kittle in the slot on the 49ers practice field.

“You just got to be disciplined from the start of the down to the end, because he’s real crafty, strong, and he’s just relentless in everything he does,” Williams said. “He’s willing to block in the run game.

"So you just got to be on you’re ‘A game’ going against a guy like that.”

[RELATEDKittle, 49ers get to only reasonable destination with extension]

The 49ers on Thursday agreed with Kittle on a five-year, $75 million contract extension with $30 million fully guaranteed.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]