Nick Bosa had a phenomenal first NFL season. Don’t waste breath arguing that point. The 49ers edge rusher and last year’s No. 2 overall pick was the unquestioned Defensive Rookie of the Year and the main catalyst for turning the team’s pass rush from just okay to great.
Bosa proved capable of dominating one-on-one matchups while battling through chips and double teams when presented.
He finished the year with nine sacks, 25 quarterback hits and 82 total pressures, doing so on 15 percent of his pass-rush snaps, per analytics site Pro Football Focus. He had four more sacks and another forced fumble in three postseason games, including 12 total pressures in a Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
He was effective in run defense and established a high standard to start a promising career.
The Ohio State product believes he’ll exceed it.
“I think I’m going to be a much smarter player next year,” Bosa told 49ers media in a video conference call. “I’m just going to know how to approach my opponents much better. I’m not going to waste rushes, I’m not going to make silly mistakes that I made last year and hopefully enhance my game.
“It’s about seeing the field a little better, not making little technique mistakes that I would make. Just really small things that you could see on film.”
Those little things, more than anything else, will make him more efficient. Improved strategy also will help him finish, and that’s where we should see statistical jumps in future seasons.
While it’s accurate that edge rushing and defensive line play, in general, isn’t all about stats and sacks, the goal is to make game-changing plays. Those that show up in the box score are often the most impactful.
Sometimes it’s less obvious to the untrained eye. It's done by generating pressure required to force an errant throw or interception. It could come by setting a proper edge and staying disciplined in the run game, limiting a carry to 2 yards instead of 4, which could keep an offense off schedule and force a legitimate pass-rush opportunity or a punt.
Those things are vital to good defense. Bosa does them all at a high level.
He’s capable of making more direct impact plays. Sacks are drive killers. Forced fumbles and strip-sacks are the ultimate goal, something Von Miller might be the best at and why he’s the best in the game.
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Bosa’s capable of making more of those plays following an expected jump between a rookie year and the second NFL campaign. The pre-draft process can be all-consuming, with focus on meetings and measurables over making progress between college and the pros. That first full NFL offseason allows hard workers to dissect and hone their craft.
Khalil Mack’s a great example of that. The three-time All-Pro had just four sacks and a forced fumble as a rookie, generating pressure on 11 percent of his pass-rush snaps while already regarded as a dominant run defender.
His pressure percentage jumped to 17 his second season and he finished with 15 sacks and 24 quarterback hits. He might say 2016 was even better, with four fewer sacks but five forced fumbles, three recoveries and a pick.
I saw every snap Mack took from 2014-17 while covering the Raiders. Mack got a bit bigger between his first and second NFL seasons, but he got a lot smarter. He showed savvy, and he dominated.
The similarities between Mack and Bosa seem clear after watching both in person.
Bosa and Mack are almost the exact same size, with roughly similar measurables, using power and technique to win off the edge against the run and pass. Bosa’s certainly capable of maintaining Mack’s production level if he stays healthy, but he might be even better. Time will tell on that front.
Bosa’s most often and obvious comparison is his brother Joey, who came into the league just as NFL-ready, earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2016 while besting Nick’s statistical sums despite playing just 12 games.
Joey Bosa has been consistently productive, hovering around a 15 percent pressure rate while hitting double-digit sacks every year he has been healthy.
It’s realistic to assume Nick Bosa will be able to maintain production and overall game impact that exceed what he showed as a rookie. There’s no telling if his sack count will ever spike to Michael Strahan levels, but that shouldn’t be an ultimate goal.
It’ll will be interesting to see how DeForest Buckner’s departure affects Bosa and the 49ers' defensive front as a whole, and how Javon Kinlaw’s addition mitigates that impact. The position group is still deep and ferocious enough that protection units can’t focus solely on a particular player. Getting a full, uninterrupted season of Dee Ford’s speed off the edge would also help.
Nothing’s off the table when it comes to an elite talent with football pedigree and a grinder’s work ethic. Bosa set a high standard as a rookie but should meet or clear it if he stays healthy and continues refining his game.