Shawne Merriman knows what to look for in a Defensive Rookie of the Year, having won the award himself after entering the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2005. He amassed 45.5 sacks over an eight-year career with the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills, over which he frequently lived up to his "Lights Out" nickname. Merriman retired following the 2012 NFL season, but was at the 2019 NFL Draft to announce the Chargers' second-round pick.
That's when he got acquainted with the newest Pepsi NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year -- 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa.
"You can always tell within the first couple minutes of talking to a young guy what his mindset is and how he wants to approach the game, Merriman told NBC Sports Bay Area's Scott Bair on Radio Row in Miami on Thursday. "And when they ask the right questions, you know these guys are going to be great. Obviously, [Bosa] was coming in as a top draft pick, but he had questions like he was a guy just trying to come in and make the league."
Just based on that initial interaction, Merriman had high expectations for the No. 2 overall pick, but Bosa managed to surpass them.
"I knew he was going to be Defensive Rookie of the Year," Merriman said. "I knew he was going to be explosive -- it's in his blood, it's in his genes to be explosive and a good player. But what he's doing right now as a rookie, to me, it's unheard of. He's coming in, they're ready to go, and he's not playing like a rookie at all. And when his brother Joey said that he is better than him, I thought that he was just joking around, because Joey is an incredible player. But I think he was really honest about that."
Bosa might be the most notable name on the 49ers' defensive line, which has arguably been the best unit of its kind throughout the entire league this year. Merriman is impressed not only with the depth on San Francisco's defensive line, but the relentlessness of the entire defense in general.
"They have a great balance of guys across the board," Merriman explained. "On both sides of the ball, really. You look at their front seven, you've got guys that are swarming to the ball every single tackle. You see guys running from sideline to sideline. You never, ever see on the defensive side of the ball guys just tackling someone 1-on-1. You never do, because these guys all finish at the football."
Over the regular season and playoffs combined, Bosa has totaled 12 sacks, while Arik Armstead and Dee Ford have tallied 12 and 7.5, respectively. While those three have generated the most quarterback pressures, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is the straw that stirs the drink. Merriman agreed as much and compared Buckner to his former Chargers teammate Jamal Williams.
"Jamal was one of these guys that ... he didn't get a lot of credit," Merriman said. "But you know what? I got the sacks because of Jamal Williams, and if it wasn't for him, I don't know if I would be going to back-to-back Pro Bowls. And Buckner is the same way. When you turn on that film as an opponent and you watch the film, you know exactly what he can do."
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Merriman believes Buckner will have a particularly critical role in Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs, as his pressure up the middle will make it more difficult for Patrick Mahomes to hold the ball and take shots downfield. You can watch the full interview with Merriman at the top of this article.
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (9:30 p.m. Friday, and 3 p.m. Saturday).
Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.