First-Round Investments Paying Off for 49ers

SF's defensive front, which includes five first-round picks, is playing at a high level going into NFC Championship Game

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In the spring of 2015, the 49ers drafted defensive lineman Arik Armstead in the first round. The next year, they used their top pick to take another defensive lineman, DeForest Buckner. In 2017, they selected Solomon Thomas for the defensive line, with the No. 3 overall pick.

Then, this past year, Nick Bosa was the team’s first-round choice.

Using its top pick on the defensive line four of the past five years raised eyebrows at times, with the Niners having plenty of other needs as the franchise flopped around at or near the bottom of the NFC West. But now, San Francisco is reaping the rewards of having a young, dynamic, athletic defensive line that can dominate games.

And, having four first-round picks up front wasn’t enough. This past offseason, the Niners traded with the Chiefs for Dee Ford, an edge rusher who was Kansas City’s first-round pick in 2014.

Bosa turned into the NFL’s Rookie of the Year, and the 49ers defensive front was outstanding against both the pass and run. Plus, the big guys up front made things much easier on the linebackers and secondary.

Wrote Bill Huber of Sports Illustrated this week: "With all that firepower up front, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had the sixth-lowest blitz rate in the league."

That dynamic defensive line is a big reason the 49ers went 13-3 this season, won the NFC West and earned the conference’s No. 1 playoff seed. San Francisco also is favored Sunday to beat the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game in large part because of a defense that controls the line of scrimmage, gets to the quarterback and stuffs running games.

Adam Stites of SB Nation this week wrote that the return of Ford from injury came just at the right time. His presence on the field helps keep blocking schemes honest. In the 49ers’ win over Minnesota last week, Bosa had two sacks, with Buckner, Armstead and Thomas with one each.

"There’s so much talent up front for the 49ers that it’s actually tough to get the entire quintet of first-rounders on the field – especially when all five are healthy," wrote Stites. "It’s a good problem to have, and for the first time in a while, San Francisco has that luxury."

If the Packers can’t figure out a way to consistently block San Francisco’s big men, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay running backs could be in for a frustrating day.

Kickoff Sunday is set for 3:40 p.m.

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