The 49ers defense is venturing into new territory under new head coach Kyle Shanahan and coordinator Robert Saleh.
Long a defense with a base 3-4 scheme, the 49ers unit will operate out of a base 4-3 scheme under Saleh that is modeled after the defense of the Seattle Seahawks. So, as the 49ers began work this week in their offseason program, many players were beginning to learn new roles and the nuances of what will be required of them in 2017 in the system.
Two players certain to be impacted are the 49ers’ top two draft picks of 2016 and 2015, former Oregon defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
Each was perfectly suited to playing defensive end in the 3-4. Now, Buckner and Armstead could play on the end or inside at tackle.
In speaking with the media this week, Saleh said he wasn’t ready to lock Buckner and Armstead into any specific role just yet.
“When you look at Armstead and Buckner, they are very, very unique in the sense that they can play up and down the line however you need them to work,” he told reporters. “We’ll find what’s best for them. There is no limitation to what they are capable of. It’s just us trying to piece together the right combination and right position for each of them so they can best be utilized.”
Saleh said this week that former outside linebacker Aaron Lynch – the team’s best pass rusher – will likely now be a defensive end in the 4-3 and recently signed Earl Mitchell will be at one tackle. Armstead and Buckner have the ability to play outside and inside, said Saleh, though Buckner could be more of an anchor at the defensive end opposite Lynch. Buckner, in fact, told reporters that when he plays defensive end he’ll have a much different experience in the new defense. Instead of trying to tie up blockers and have responsibility for controlling two gaps, he’ll be responsible for just one gap and have more pass-rush freedom.
“I’m not holding on to blocks, more avoiding them now,” he told KNBR. “I’m excited about that. Not having to hold off a 300-pound man for two seconds and shedding and all that stuff. So, it’s going to be more exciting.”
Roles on the defensive line could further change in the coming weeks, however. The 49ers are expected to add more help on the defensive line, and players’ skill sets in the new scheme will likely be revealed during the offseason program and mini camp.