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.
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.
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.