Robert Saleh

Why Dee Ford fits mold of the 49ers' prototypical 'leo' edge rusher

Why Dee Ford fits mold of the 49ers' prototypical 'leo' edge rusher

The 49ers on Wednesday announced the signing of defensive lineman Dee Ford to a five-year extension after acquiring him in a trade from the Kansas City Chiefs for a second-round draft pick in 2020.

Repeat, the 49ers announced the signing of defensive lineman Dee Ford.

During his five seasons in Kansas City, Ford was an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme. All indications are Ford will be the “leo” in the 49ers’ 4-3 defensive alignment.

His job: Get after the quarterback.

Ford did his job exceptionally well last season, recording 13 sacks and forcing seven fumbles. Outside of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, the 49ers lacked a consistent pass rush. The 49ers, as a team, generated just seven takeaways on the season – the worst mark in the history of the National Football League.

Coach Kyle Shanahan hired Robert Saleh to implement the Seattle-style defense with the 49ers. It’s a 4-3 defense with essentially 3-4 personnel. The leo position is based on the elephant edge-rusher spot that George Seifert used with the 49ers in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Ford fits the height-weight prototype to play the leo position. The 49ers had little consistency at that position in the first two seasons with Saleh as defensive coordinator. Last year, Solomon Thomas mostly started at leo, but he either left the field on passing downs or moved inside to defensive tackle in nickel situations.

[RELATED: Robert Saleh outlines 49ers' defensive blueprint]

Ford is likely being counted upon to be an every-down leo – the pass-rusher the 49ers have lacked since Aldon Smith’s departure.

Here is how Ford height and weight compare to a list of players Saleh cited in 2017 as prototypical edge rushers at the leo position:

Dee Ford 6-foot-2, 252 pounds
Chris Clemons 6-3, 260
Cliff Avril 6-3, 260
Yannick Ngakoue 6-2, 246
Dante Fowler 6-3, 255
Vic Beasley 6-3, 246
Von Miller 6-3, 250
Khalil Mack 6-3, 252

NFL free agency: 49ers looking for linebacker to complement Fred Warner

NFL free agency: 49ers looking for linebacker to complement Fred Warner

The free-agent signing period begins Wednesday at 1 p.m. This is Part Two of a series that examines the 49ers’ biggest offseason needs and their options in free agency. Previously, we focused on wide receivers.

The 49ers answered one roster question on Friday when they restructured the contract of veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith to keep him on the roster.

But what does it really mean? Do the 49ers still need to add another player to line up alongside middle linebacker Fred Warner in the team’s defense? Is Smith considered a starter, as he was when the club signed him as a free agent in 2017? Or, at this point, is Smith a valuable depth piece due to his recent history of injuries?

The 49ers have one linebacker on their roster who is unequivocally a starter. Aside from Warner, the 49ers have questions to answer at the weak side and strong side positions.

Smith, Brock Coyle and Elijah Lee can play the weak side, as the 49ers' long-term plan blew up after Reuben Foster's string of off-field incidents led to the team's decison to release him. Smith and Mark Nzeocha saw action on the strong side last season.

On the roster

Fred Warner, Malcolm Smith, Dekoda Watson, Elijah Lee, Mark Nzeocha, Brock Coyle, Pita Taumoepenu, James Onwualu.

On the market

Three veterans who fit the 49ers’ scheme are C.J. Mosley (Baltimore Ravens), K.J. Wright (Seattle Seahawks) and Anthony Barr (Minnesota Vikings). Each will comes with a hefty price tag, for sure.

Mosley has been selected to four Pro Bowls in his five seasons, and likely will attract a lot of attention and a big contract. He is a middle linebacker, but that position and the weak side spot are interchangeable in the 49ers’ defense.

Wright, who turns 30 in July, plays the weak side position, and 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has history with him from their time together in Seattle.

Barr is an accomplished strong side linebacker and considered an every-down player, but he has not proven to be a strong edge rusher on nickel downs. Barr has 13.5 sacks in his five NFL seasons.

The bottom end of the market for inside linebackers was set when the L.A. Chargers re-signed Denzel Perryman to a two-year contract reportedly worth $12 million to prevent him from reaching free agency. Perryman appeared in just 16 games the past two seasons due to ankle and knee injuries.

[RELATED: Breaking down 49ers' free agents, other roster decisions]

Offseason approach

The 49ers figure to get involved in free agency at the linebacker position. San Francisco should be able to sign a veteran to complement Warner.

Then, the 49ers can scratch that off their list of needs and not have to worry about spending one of their six draft picks to fill that role.

49ers hopeful Kris Kocurek can unleash Solomon Thomas in crucial third year


49ers hopeful Kris Kocurek can unleash Solomon Thomas in crucial third year

MOBILE, Ala. -- 49ers defesive coordinator Robert Saleh knows a big question for San Francisco's defense heading into 2019 is how they plan to use defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Saleh explained new coach Kris Kocurek is going to have a lot of influence in that decision. 

“Kris Kocurek is studying him,” Saleh said, “and we’re going to sit down. I want his thoughts unbiased so I’m not going to put anything out there right now. He knows what we did last year. He knows where our thoughts are initially. We’re going to have him study it.” 

Kocurek was a coach that became available with the staff changes in Miami. Both coach Kyle Shanahan and Saleh said that it wasn’t anything against former defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina, as there was no plan to make a change. It was simply an opportunity they needed to take advantage of

“We all want to see what he says and how he views him,” Saleh said. “From there as an organization, we’ll do what’s best for the organization and put Solly in the best position to be successful.”

Thomas will be entering his third season, which Saleh says is a very important one for players. It’s a chance for them to be able to show that they can decipher what an offense is going to do, fast enough to be able to make plays. 

“You know the standard,” Saleh said. ‘You know the defense. You know what’s being asked of you. Can you recognize offenses fast enough now to be able to trigger and do things at a higher level? Usually a third year is a great year for players to play.

“I’ve been out here, I’ve seen the split, I’ve seen this release before. How quickly can you recognize it so now you can go make plays? It’s going to be a big year in terms of offensive identification for these guys to really showcase how good they’ve gotten.” 

Thomas has been steadily making progress after missing much of the offseason his rookie year, which stunted his growth. He played in all 16 games in 2018, registering 31 total tackles (24 solo), three for a loss. 

While Thomas only recorded one sack, he was a consistent disruption in the middle of the line. This was particularly notable in the 49ers' win over the Seahawks in Week 13 when he drew two holding calls late in the game that helped secure the victory. 

There has been a lot of pressure on Thomas to be a game-changing player after being selected as the third overall pick in 2017. The defensive coaching staff has struggled to figure out where he can be the most productive. They had originally played him on the outside, even though he was very productive on the inside at Stanford. 

The 49ers are hopeful Kocurek’s fresh set of eyes will help put Thomas in a better position to heighten his productivity and improve the team's struggling pass rush.