Despite a rash of injuries to some of their top players at key positions, the 49ers’ defense held it together in 2020 and was the strength of the team.
The 49ers ranked fifth in the NFL last season in fewest yards allowed and fewest average yards allowed per play.
If the defense is going to continue to keep it going this season under first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, it will need some young players to take the next step, rising players to continue their ascents and one significant player to return to form from a significant injury.
With reporting date for training camp set for Tuesday, here are the 49ers’ 10 most-important players for the 2021 season:
10. Dre Greenlaw
Linebacker Dre Greenlaw became a huge contributor in the second half of the 2019 season as a rookie. Again, in 2020, he was called upon, and he responded.
Kwon Alexander could not stay healthy, and the 49ers ultimately moved on from him and rewarded Greenlaw with the full-time job. Greenlaw is a three-down player whose skills are a nice complement to the man who lines up next to him — the highest-paid linebacker in the league (See No. 5).
9. K’Waun Williams
The 49ers have touted K’Waun Williams as the best nickel back in the NFL. That surely is debatable. But what is obvious is that the nickel back position is huge. The team is in this nickel defense for roughly two-thirds of the snaps, and they are the most important plays in a game.
Williams has been very reliable since his arrival to fill that role in 2017.
He is back on a one-year contract, which indicates the 49ers are a bit unsure of his ability to maintain a high level of play beyond this season. Williams is 30 years old, and he played in just half of the team’s games last season due to a high ankle sprain.
The 49ers selected Oregon defensive back Deommodore Lenoir in the fifth round as a potential understudy, but the 49ers need Williams to perform near the top of his game for at least another season.
8. Javon Kinlaw
Every team goes into every game with the intent of stopping the run. That is where second-year defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw comes in. That is what he does best.
The 49ers selected Kinlaw in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He played as well as the team could have expected as a rookie with 33 tackles in 14 games.
But Kinlaw will not rank higher on this list until he becomes more than just a two-down player. Passing downs are the money downs, and Kinlaw eventually must improve his pass-rush skills to earn a spot on the field for the plays that mean the most.
7. Emmanuel Moseley
Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, a starter on the 49ers’ Super Bowl team, is being counted upon to hold down the job on the outside for at least the next two seasons. The 49ers signed him this offseason to a two-year extension worth nearly $9.5 million.
The 49ers did not re-sign Richard Sherman (though he remains a free agent). The club selected Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas in the third round. Thomas opted out of his final college season.
The 49ers are putting a lot of trust in Moseley to get the job done.
6. Samson Ebukam
Edge rusher Samson Ebukam was the 49ers’ biggest free-agent acquisition on the defensive side of the ball. They are counting on him to bring something he did not capture consistently during his four seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.
The 49ers are hopeful Dee Ford will be healthy and make a contribution this season. Ford has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. But it's one question of whether Ford will be cleared to play. It's something else to expect him to play at a high level for the entire season.
One of Ebukam's strengths has been availability. He did not miss a game in his first four seasons. But he must refine his pass-rush technique and improve his production beyond his back-to-back 4.5 sack seasons.
5. Fred Warner
Linebacker Fred Warner is so good, it is easy to take him for granted. That is definitely what’s going on here with his debatable ranking at No. 5.
The 49ers just rewarded him with a contract that makes him the highest-paid linebacker in the league at $19 million per season over the life of his five-year deal.
Of course, Warner is important. He is the 49ers' best and most reliable defensive player.
But with the news of his signing last week, maybe he becomes even more important. Warner said he expects to be asked to do more things. He’s already a solid tackler and great in coverage. He said he now expects he will be asked to do more blitzing and attacking at the line of scrimmage.
4. Jimmie Ward
When Ryans said he wants his defensive line to play aggressively, he does so with full confidence that safety Jimmie Ward will prevent him from looking bad.
“We're going to let our D-line just get off the ball and attack, and we're going to clean up things behind them,” Ryans said.
Mistakes will be made. The 49ers’ will be left vulnerable from time to time. And that’s where Ward comes in.
It is Ward’s responsibility as the center fielder of the team’s defense to prevent big plays from happening. That’s what Ward does.
One thing Ward has not done is generate a lot of takeaways. The 49ers want Ward to come up with more big plays. That will be an important part of the defense.
3. Arik Armstead
In the role Arik Armstead plays on the 49ers’ defensive line, his value is measured in a lot more than just sacks.
But, let’s face it, Armstead’s ability to register 10 sacks in 2019 played a huge part in the team keeping him with a $17 million annual salary and trading away DeForest Buckner.
Armstead lines up at defensive end on base down, then moves inside to rush the passer. So he has plenty of chances to impact the game in every area.
Armstead played in all 16 games last season, and his sack total dropped to 3.5. Sure, there are a myriad of reasons for the decline in his numbers. But that's beside the point. The 49ers need Armstead to produce big numbers. That’s why they gave him the big bucks.
2. Jason Verrett
Cornerback Jason Verrett entered the past two seasons with the 49ers as a low-risk option. Everyone knew his talent, but he had not been able to get on the field due to a variety of injuries.
Verrett gave the team nothing in 2019. Still, they brought him back in 2020. And he did not disappoint.
Verrett remained healthy last season and was the 49ers’ best cover man. Now, his production is no longer just a luxury. The organization is counting on him to stay healthy and perform at a high level from beginning to end. In a group of thin cornerbacks, the 49ers have little margin for error with Verrett.
1. Nick Bosa
Defensive end Nick Bosa was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft. He lived up to his draft status with NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
His second season was cut short after going down with a torn ACL in his left knee early in Week 2. He appears to have made good progress in his comeback.
Bosa is the 49ers’ most important defensive player because of his ability to completely transform the team. He attracts a ton of attention, which makes things a little easier for the other defensive linemen.
Also, his ability to consistently put pressure on the quarterback makes him the best friend of anyone on the team’s defense who drops into coverage.
Yes, it’s important that Bosa gets back on the field this season. But it is even more important that he returns to the same high level at which he played as a rookie.