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49ers roster analysis: Work needed to keep up defensive line dominance

49ers roster analysis: Work needed to keep up defensive line dominance

This is the sixth installment of a nine-part series that examines the 49ers’ roster coming out of the 2019 season, looks ahead to 2020, and outlines the offseason challenges facing general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan on a position-by-position basis.

We continue with a look at the 49ers’ defensive line.

Under contract (signed through)

-Dee Ford (2023)
-DeForest Buckner (2020)
-Nick Bosa (2022)
-Solomon Thomas (2020)
-D.J. Jones (2020)
-Jullian Taylor (2021)
-Kentavius Street (2021)
-Kevin Givens (2021)
-Willie Henry (2020)
-Ray Smith (2021)
-Alex Barrett (2021)
-Jonathan Kongbo (2022)

Buckner is scheduled to play on the fifth-year option of $14.36 million, but the 49ers would like to work out a multi-year contract extension for him and likely see his cap number come down this year.

Ford’s $13.65 million salary for the 2020 season becomes fully guaranteed on April 1. Ford signed the lucrative deal a year ago after coming from the Kansas City Chiefs in a trade for a second-round draft pick.

Thomas is scheduled to enter the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. The 49ers will not pick up the fifth-year option for 2021, but it is not out of the question he could return beyond this season on a significantly reduced contract.

Expiring contracts

-Arik Armstead (UFA)
-Ronald Blair (UFA)
-Sheldon Day (UFA)
-Damontre Moore (UFA)
-Anthony Zettel (UFA)
-Earl Mitchell (UFA)

The 49ers could use the franchise tag on Armstead, but that would require the team committing more than $19 million to him for the 2020 season. The 49ers prefer to re-sign Armstead to a multi-year extension for a lower annual average.

What needs to happen

The 49ers had tremendous depth along the defensive line, but it never seems to be enough at this position. That is why the 49ers will always be looking for more players at this spot. The 49ers could use another outside pass rusher capable of six sacks on the season.

Armstead will cost the most to retain among all the 49ers’ free agents. How high are they willing to go? Lynch made it sound as if the team is focused on a long-term contract, rather than the fallback of merely placing the franchise tag on him.

It might be even a greater priority to work out a long-term extension with Buckner, who enters the final year of his contract. All you need to know about how Buckner is viewed inside the organization became evident when the coaching staff voted him as the winner of the Bill Walsh Award.

Blair and Day are scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Blair served an important role as a backup nickel pass-rusher. His absence after he sustained a torn ACL in the middle of the season was felt. Blair could have taken some of the pass-rush snaps to enable others on the defensive line to remain fresh.

Day could be a starter somewhere else. But when Jones slated to start again this season at nose tackle, the 49ers are not likely to pay much to retain him as a backup.

[RELATED: Why 49ers' O-Line is in good shape for immediate future]

Expectations

The 49ers defensive line was dominant last season. It was San Francisco's strength, and they need to be even more dominant this season.

Bosa quickly established himself as a star. Buckner is another star. Ford has to take the necessary steps in the offseason to make sure the 49ers do not lose him for long stretches of time next season.

Armstead gives the 49ers exactly what they need. He’s a base defensive end who moves inside to rush the passer in nickel situations. If he returns, the 49ers should have the best collection of defensive linemen in the league. If Armstead is not back, the 49ers must add a lower-cost option who fits the scheme and minimizes the drop-off.

Thomas will be back for his fourth season with the 49ers, and there is no reason why he can't produce significantly more in 2020 as a rotational player.

Why Bobby Wagner is wrong Seahawks, not 49ers, are NFC West team to beat

Why Bobby Wagner is wrong Seahawks, not 49ers, are NFC West team to beat

The 49ers are reigning champions of their conference and division. They held a double-digit lead midway through the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. Though the Kansas City Chiefs ultimately came back to win, that was only San Francisco's fourth loss of the season, including the playoffs. In those four defeats, the 49ers lost by a combined total of only 24 points -- nearly half of which resulted from the Super Bowl.

So, naturally, San Francisco would be the team to beat -- if not in the NFC, surely in the NFC West -- next season, right?

Not according to Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.

During an appearance on ESPN's "First Take" on Wednesday, Wagner expressed significant confidence in his team, and made the case that the Seahawks should be the favorites in the NFC West.

"I feel really confident," Wagner said. "Obviously, Russell [Wilson] is an amazing quarterback; the things that he does on the field are just amazing. Like you said, he's one of the greatest quarterbacks in our game. We're confident on that side. I feel like from the defensive standpoint, there's a lot of room for improvement. We have to play a little bit better. I feel like if we make those changes and make those improvements, I still feel like we'll be the team to beat."

Still? Hmmm ...

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He's absolutely right about Wilson. The guy is a magician in the pocket -- and that's where you hope to contain him. Wilson has been a thorn in San Francisco's side ever since he entered the NFL, and there's arguably no more terrifying opposing QB to 49er fans. With Wilson having two deep targets in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, as well as a strong running game, there's ample reason for Wagner to be confident about Seattle's offense.

The defense, on the other hand? Well, he's correct that there's room for improvement. Plenty of it.

Last season, the Seahawks ranked 26th overall in total defense, and tied for the second-fewest sacks in the NFL. That was with standout defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney in tow, but all signs point toward him signing elsewhere this offseason in free agency. They re-signed defensive tackle Jarran Reed, traded for cornerback Quentin Dunbar and signed pass-rushers Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin, but other than that, Seattle hasn't really addressed the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Granted, the 2020 NFL Draft is right around the corner, but there's no guarantee they'll find any immediate contributors there.

Wagner is phenomenal, and fellow linebacker K.J. Wright is very solid, as well. But they both lived up to those reputations last season, and look how that worked out. Yes, the 49ers won the division by a matter of inches in Week 17, but Seattle also required overtime to beat a shorthanded San Francisco squad in Week 10, which was without star tight end George Kittle.

Though the 49ers have retained most of their own free agents, they did see wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders sign with the New Orleans Saints, and made the tough decision to trade defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts. Of course, San Francisco didn't lose Buckner for nothing -- like Seattle might with Clowney. The 49ers got the No. 13 overall pick in the upcoming draft in exchange, which should help them replace Buckner or Sanders, or address another position.

[RELATED: Oklahoma WR Lamb could be 49ers' Sanders replacement]

The Seahawks currently have five picks in the first four rounds of the 2020 draft, but they gave up a third-rounder to acquire Clowney last offseason, and their earliest selection doesn't come until No. 27 overall.

In addition to the No. 13 overall pick, the 49ers also possess No. 31.

Any team with Wilson behind center should feel confident. But last I checked, he doesn't play defense, and that, among other reasons, is why the 49ers -- and not the Seahawks -- are the team to beat in the NFC West.

NFL Draft 2020: 49ers could target these three wide receivers on Day 3

NFL Draft 2020: 49ers could target these three wide receivers on Day 3

The 49ers have selected a wide receiver in 17 consecutive drafts.

That streak is certain to continue later this month, as the 49ers will look to bring in a young player to help offset the loss of veteran Emmanuel Sanders in free agency to the New Orleans Saints.

The past two years the 49ers drafted two receivers both years.

Whether the 49ers invest an early pick in a wide receiver or not, they could double back on Day 3 of the draft in hopes of finding a player to develop into an impact player.

Here are three options who could be available in the fourth round or later:

Isaiah Hodgins, Oregon State

Isaiah Hodgins (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) declared for the NFL draft after a junior season in which he caught 86 passes for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns for Oregon State.

Hodgins has what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan seems to value – the ability to run routes with an ability to change direction quickly without losing speed. Hodgins is 5 inches taller than Deebo Samuel, yet Hodgins timed faster in the three-cone drill than Samuel. Hodgins ran the drill in 7.01 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Last year, Samuel ran a 7.03. Hodgins’ 20-yard shuttle was 4.12. Samuel’s was 4.14.

Hodgins is not a speed-burner with a time of 4.61 seconds in the 40-yard dash, but he could be an effective receiver on the outside to make grabs with his strong catch radius and keep the chains moving with his ability to take patterns over the middle of the field on third downs.

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Aaron Parker, Rhode Island

Aaron Packer’s teammate, Isaiah Coulter, ran much better in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. But Parker seems as if he would be a good fit for the 49ers due to his route-running, change-of-direction skills and toughness as a blocker in the running game.

Parker (6-2, 209) has a basketball background and posted one of the top three-cone times (6.94) at the combine. Shanahan will see a wide receiver who can get open quickly against man coverage on choice routes. Parker was a team captain who caught 81 passes for 1,224 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior. Coulter caught 72 passes for 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns.

Parker could be available deep into Day 3 in a loaded group of wide receivers.

RELATED: Do 49ers need to give Jimmy Garoppolo No. 1 wideout?]

Quez Watkins, Southern Mississippi

If the 49ers are looking for a player to take the top off the defense while playing a limited number of snaps throughout the course of a game, Quez Watkins is a solid late-round option.

Watkins (6-foot, 185) is a player who can bring the speed in great abundance. His time of 4.35 in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine ranked second behind only Alabama’s Henry Ruggs.

With Marquise Goodwin’s status with the 49ers this season looking tenuous, the 49ers could select Watkins on Day 3 and have him perform a specialized set of plays. Watkins capped his college career with 64 catches for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns.