49ers' need at edge rusher could be fixed in free agency or NFL Draft


49ers' need at edge rusher could be fixed in free agency or NFL Draft

Editor's note: The 49ers season isn't over, but we'll keep one eye on the future with our weekly series on the team's biggest needs heading into 2019 and how voids can be filled best. This week's focus is on edge rushers.

The 49ers have tried to pattern their defense after the scheme and style the Seattle Seahawks have deployed for most of the past decade.

The biggest problem, however, is that the 49ers do not have the players to pull it off with as much success.

And it all starts with 49ers’ lack of an edge rusher.

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A year ago, the 49ers were able to fill the biggest need on the team with the acquisition of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in a trade from the New England Patriots. But they have made no progress when it comes to getting production from the position coach Kyle Shanahan considers the defensive equivalent.

“A quarterback can hide a lot of problems, and so can a pass rush,” Shanahan said.

There were few – if any – options available last offseason in free agency or where the 49ers picked in the draft. However, this offseason could be a lot different, as the 49ers are positioned perfectly to make a  low-pressure decision to provide an immediate upgrade.

Players likely to stay in 2019

Ronald Blair: The third-year pro has remained healthy and developed into the team’s best outside pass-rusher. Blair, 25, is second on the 49ers with 4.5 sacks, and he still has a lot to learn and room to improve.

Cassius Marsh: He will have to earn his way back as a third or fourth outside pass-rusher after failing to provide a consistent pass rush while getting plenty of opportunities. He had more chances as an edge-rusher than anyone on the team, but has managed just 3.5 sacks on the season. He is likely to stick around, but will face more challengers for his spot.

Players likely to go

Arik Armstead: The 49ers have a difficult decision to make on Armstead, who is scheduled to make $9 millon next season on the fifth-year option. The one-year deal becomes guaranteed at the start of the new league year in March. The 49ers consider Armstead as an elite defensive lineman against the run. But that is a lot of money to play for someone who does not have the explosion to make a consistent impact as a pass-rusher. It could go either way.

[RELATED: 49ers' defense must make adjustments to fit their players]

Dekoda Watson: He will be 31, and coming off an injury-plagued season that saw him twice land on injured reserve. He has recorded just six sacks in nine NFL seasons, but 1.5 sacks came in his season debut in Week 9 against the Raiders. After that, he faded to the background.

49ers offseason plan

FREE AGENCY: There is a reason it’s rare that game-changing edge rushers switch teams. Once a team gets a good one, they are not going to let him go.

The Raiders were the exception. They had Khalil Mack, and they traded him to the Chicago Bears.

The 49ers made a competitive trade offer for Mack, according to general manager John Lynch, but did not close the deal to keep Mack in the Bay Area.

Detroit edge rusher Ziggy Ansah is playing under the franchise tag this season. He missed six games this season with a shoulder injury. He is not expected to be tagged for a second year in a row.

With an estimated $70 million in salary-cap space, the 49ers have plenty of money available to spend.

The free-agent market could be thin at edge rusher, as teams are likely to prevent their top guys from hitting the open market. Among the players who could receive franchise tags are Demarcus Lawrence (Dallas), Jadeveon Clowney (Houston), Dee Ford (Kansas City) and Frank Clark (Seattle). Keep an eye on Rams free agent Dante Fowler, whom defensive coordinator Robert Saleh worked with while they were both in Jacksonville.

DRAFT: The 49ers are four losses away from answering their most pressing need. With four more losses, the 49ers will own the No. 1 overall pick and can run their draft card up to select former Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa.

Well, that was easy.

Even if the 49ers defy the odds and win a game or two down the stretch, their first pick is still likely to be an edge rusher. The second-best guy on their list could be Josh Allen of Kentucky. Not only does he rank near the top of the nation with 14 sacks, but he has generated five forced fumbles. On a defense that lacks playmakers and guys with a nose for the football, Allen could be a nice consolation prize.

BOTTOM LINE: At the end of the regular season, the 49ers will know whether they will have the No. 1 overall pick and can select the top college player on their board. If the 49ers are picking elsewhere in the top-five, they would likely become a lot more aggressive in free agency to fill the need.

Josh Rosen calls uncertain Cardinals future before NFL draft 'annoying'

Josh Rosen calls uncertain Cardinals future before NFL draft 'annoying'

One year ago, Josh Rosen had to think he was the Arizona Cardinals' future. General manager Steve Keim traded up to draft the quarterback with the No. 10 overall pick, but a lot can change in one year. 

Now, with the 2019 NFL Draft one week away, Rosen's future is up in the air.

“I definitely understand the situation,” Rosen said in a talk with SI TV. “I mean, it’s annoying but, like, it is what it is. Football’s a business, and I definitely respect the higher-ups and their decisions."

Despite having Rosen on the team, the Cardinals and new coach Kliff Kingsbury are expected to take quarterback Kyler Murray with the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft. Plenty can change, however, and on Tuesday, Kingsbury said Rosen has been "phenomenal" this offseason.

The 22-year-old QB already has dealt with change and uncertainty plenty of times in his young football career. Since his freshman season at UCLA through his NFL rookie season, Rosen has played under five offensive coordinators in four years.

Rosen went 3-10 as the Cardinals' starter last season (two of those wins were over the 49ers), and he threw for 2,278 yards and 11 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. While those aren't great numbers, QBs who are first-round picks typically receive many more chances to prove themselves. Rosen, however, might not have that chance in Arizona, but he said he's not sweating it.

"I think the best advice I've ever gotten in life, from so many different people, is control what you can control," Rosen said. "And whatever decisions are made, it's my duty to prove them right if they keep me and prove them wrong if they ship me off."

[RELATED: Kyler football-over-baseball decision gives NFL what it needs]

If the Cardinals do ship off Rosen and draft Murray, they'd become perhaps the biggest storyline to watch in football. They'd also allow the 49ers to draft Nick Bosa with the No. 2 pick, setting a rookie pass rusher versus a rookie quarterback in the NFC West for years to come.

Joe Staley offered scouting report on Dee Ford before 49ers made trade

Joe Staley offered scouting report on Dee Ford before 49ers made trade

When the 49ers were shopping for an edge rusher during free agency, they sought the advice of veteran offensive lineman Joe Staley, who offered valuable information regarding Dee Ford

Staley faced off against Ford in Week 3 of the 2018 season when the 49ers traveled to Kansas City to face the Chiefs. He had first-hand knowledge of Ford's much-noted first step off the line.

“That’s what I love about this franchise,” Staley said. “The guys that we have here really reach out to the players about guys that are going against them, guys who have gone against certain players and ask for feedback. 

“I don’t know how much stock they take into to that but just the fact that they reach out to the players and ask their opinions on all that stuff.”  

When Staley was asked if Ford was truly explosive, he gave a very succinct reply. 

“That’s a correct statement,” Staley said. “He’s one of the most explosive players I’ve played against. He was definitely a challenge to go against last year and every time I’ve ever played him.”

Shortly after Ford was signed by the 49ers, he gave a similarly complementary statement about Staley and his physical ability. 

“He’s athletic and he’s strong and he has functional strength,” Ford said. “Functional strength is so important. Every offensive line is strong. They’re huge, they’re big, they’re strong. That’s a given. But he has functional strength, which is rare. He’s a pure athlete with a savvy skillset. So you’re not going to beat him a lot.”

Staley recalled one instance where he thought the Ford had taken advantage of a no-call by the referees. 

“It was a challenging game,” Staley said. "He got me early on with that sack, the first step, that quickness. I was like 100-percent certain that he was offsides, he was that fast. But going back in the film he just timed it up super right on it.

“It’s that first step, get-off. You see guys like Von (Miller) have it. Even bigger guys like DeMarcus Lawrence has that explosive first step. He’s a bigger pass rusher. That really sets up everything they can do and gets the tackles and the offensive linemen playing on their heels and reacting a little bit more than they want to.”  

It was a memorable game for Ford as well, which included banter between the two of them. 

“We talked during the whole game,” Ford said. “It was fun. It was fun. It was trash talk, but we were enjoying it. I really admire his game. And that was huge for me, because he admired my game. He’s a vet. He’s a future Hall of Famer, and it’s huge to hear that from a guy like that.”

Staley remarked that he can’t wait to pick Ford’s brain and go against him in practice every day. He thinks it will make each of them better players. 

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Staley is very pleased his scouting report on Ford was influential in bringing the star edge rusher to California. So much so that he may have a future in scouting.

Well, at least according to Staley himself.