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NFL Preview 2019: These four defensive players could surprise NFC West

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USATSI

NFL Preview 2019: These four defensive players could surprise NFC West

The NFC West doesn't lack big names on defense.

The 49ers have their own collection of talent after adding pass rushers Dee Ford and Joey Bosa during the offseason, supplementing a group that already featured breakout defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and cagey veteran cornerback Richard Sherman. The Legion of Boom is no more in Seattle, but Bobby Wagner still headlines the Seahawks defense. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson rescinded his trade request and is staying in the desert -- although he will miss the first six games of the season due to a PED suspension.  Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams might have the NFL's best player on their roster in defensive lineman, Aaron Donald.

Those stars will shine brightly in 2019, but which players could join them? Here are four NFC West defenders -- one from each team -- who could surprise the rest of the division this season. 

John Johnson III, Los Angeles Rams S

Johnson had a very productive second NFL season last year, accounting for 82 tackles, 11 passes defended, four interceptions and a forced fumble. His name wasn't the one dominating headlines this offseason, however, after the Rams signed veteran safety Eric Weddle to play alongside him. 

The two should form one of the league's best safety duos next season, in large part because of Johnson's ability. Pro Football Focus gave Johnson an 86.1 coverage grade during the regular season, which was the fifth-best mark among safeties who faced at least 20 targets. The Rams will have eyes on their secondary because of Weddle, but those eyes could quickly shift their attention to Johnson. 

Ezekiel Ansah, Seattle Seahawks DE

Ansah is by no means an unknown, but he'll be tasked with filling a big hole for Seattle next season. The Seahawks traded edge rusher Frank Clark to the Kansas City Chiefs for a haul of picks before this year's draft and signed Ansah a couple weeks later. 

Clark led the Seahawks with 13 sacks in 2018, and Ansah is a good low-risk bet to replicate some of that production. Although injuries have limited Ansah to just 34 games over the last three seasons, he still has 18 sacks during that period. If he can stay healthy next season, Seattle's bet could pay off in a big way. 

Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals CB

Murphy stands to gain from Peterson's aforementioned suspension. After being pegged as a late first-rounder, the Cardinals selected Murphy with their first pick of the second round on the 2019 NFL Draft's second day. The Scottsdale native comes in with plenty of pedigree, being named First Team All-Pac-12 as well as first- or second-team All-America by various outlets in his final season at Washington. 

Although he is listed at 190 pounds and likely will need to bulk up before his first NFL season, Murphy should get an opportunity right away. If he can hit the ground running in his first six NFL games, the Cardinals' secondary looks a lot stronger once Peterson returns. 

[RELATED: Gould still unsure he'll report to 49ers if he's not traded]

Ahkello Witherspoon, 49ers CB

Witherspoon will face stiff competition from veteran Jason Verrett, but that could be a good thing for the 24-year-old. If he's able to beat out Verrett for the starting spot opposite Sherman, he arguably will have won the toughest position battle at this point in his career.

Although his second NFL season was up and down, Witherspoon is coming off of a strong offseason. NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco noted last month that Witherspoon was one of the defense's best players, and that his coverage really stood out. With opposing quarterbacks likely to continue avoiding Sherman at all costs, Witherspoon stands to see plenty of targets come his way next season. They might need to give that approach a second thought if Witherspoon continues along his offseason trajectory. 

49ers injury report: Game-time decision if Dee Ford will play vs. Steelers

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AP

49ers injury report: Game-time decision if Dee Ford will play vs. Steelers

Defensive end Dee Ford is feeling better after sitting out the second half of the 49ers’ game last week against the Cincinnati Bengals with discomfort in his knee and quadriceps, coach Kyle Shanahan said.

“Hopefully, he’ll be feeling good on Sunday,” Shanahan said. “He said he felt good. He looked good walking through. But I know that’ll go all the way up to Sunday.”

Ford, who is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, sat out practices Wednesday and Thursday. He was scheduled to take part in limited practice on Friday, but the 49ers dialed back their planned practice to a walk-through at their Santa Clara facility because of the high intensity of the practices earlier in the week.

“I know he’s feeling better now than he has the last few days, but he’s still not fully there, yet,” Shanahan said of Ford. “We’ll see how these last 48 hours go. Hopefully, they go well. If it does, I know he feels confident to go out there, especially with time off the following week.”

The 49ers face the Steelers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. After the game, the club will have a bye week before returning to action on Monday, Oct. 7, against the Cleveland Browns.

Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa (ankle), and safeties Jaquiski Tartt (toe) and Jimmie Ward (hand) are also listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Bosa and Tartt are expected to play, while Ward is likely to miss his third consecutive game to open the season.

Shanahan said he expects rookie wide receiver Jalen Hurd to be available after the bye week. Hurd has sat out five weeks with a back condition.

“He’s on track,” Shanahan said of Hurd. “We’ll see how it is once we get back from the bye week. I know he has a lot of work to do when we all get away from here a little bit for the four days. It’ll be big the work he puts in when we’re away. We expect him to be ready when we get back.”

The 49ers will not have the services of wide receiver Trent Taylor for at least eight weeks after he underwent surgery to repair a Jones fracture on his right foot. The bone has healed, Shanahan said, but there were issues with some of the soft tissue around the bone on the outside of his foot that has caused a flareup. Taylor is eligible to return to action on Nov. 17 against the Arizona Cardinals.

[RELATED: 49ers place Taylor on IR, re-sign Young]

The 49ers placed Taylor on injured reserve and signed veteran offensive tackle Sam Young. Shanahan said he does not think Young will be active and in uniform for Sunday’s game.

49ers injury report

OUT
RB Tevin Coleman (ankle)
WR Jalen Hurd (back)
OT Joe Staley (leg)
WR Trent Taylor (foot) – injured reserve

Questionable
DE Dee Ford (quadriceps
S Jaquiski Tartt (toe)
DE Nick Bosa (ankle)
DB Jimmie Ward (hand)

Steelers injury report

OUT
FB Roosevelt Nix (knee)
LB Vince Williams (hamstring)
LB Anthony Chickillo (foot)

49ers place Trent Taylor on IR, re-sign veteran tackle Sam Young

49ers place Trent Taylor on IR, re-sign veteran tackle Sam Young

The 49ers on Friday signed veteran offensive tackle Sam Young to a one-year contract and placed wide receiver Trent Taylor on injured reserve.

Taylor, who underwent surgery Aug. 10 to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot, must sit out for at least eight weeks before he is eligible to return to the 49ers’ 53-man roster and appear in a game.

Originally, the 49ers placed Taylor's timetable to return at four to six weeks. As recently as last week, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said he hoped Taylor would be able to return to action after the 49ers' Week 4 bye.

Taylor was expected to be one of the team’s leading pass-catchers this season before he sustained the fracture to the fifth metatarsal on his right foot. Since the 49ers selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 draft, Taylor has appeared in 29 games and caught 69 passes for 645 yards and three touchdowns.

The 49ers re-signed Young, who was among their final cuts before the start of the regular season. The 49ers require more depth at offensive tackle after Joe Staley broke his left fibula, an injury that is expected to keep him sidelined for six to eight weeks.

Rookie Justin Skule is scheduled to start Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers at left tackle.

[RELATED: Jimmy G headlines 49ers to watch in Week 3]

In his nine-year NFL career, Young has appeared in 88 games with 21 starts with Dallas, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Miami. Young will wear No. 65 for the 49ers.