In 2015, the 49ers used their top draft pick to select defensive lineman Arik Armstead. In 2016, San Francisco used its No. 1 choice to get defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. This spring, the team’s two top picks were defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster.
So, the franchise has forked over plenty of money the past three years to invest in its defensive front seven.
Yet, in its offseason evaluation of the NFL’s front sevens, the analytic website Pro Football Focus ranked the 49ers 32nd among the 32 defenses in the NFL.
Yet, that ranking came with a caveat, wrote PFF’s Louie Benjamin. The team’s recent draft picks and free-agent signings – plus the return to health of former All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman – make this a far different unit than the one that could get little pressure on opposing quarterbacks or stop running backs in 2016.
“The 49ers will be the darkhorse candidate for possibility of most improvement this year,” wrote Benjamin. “They’ll be banking on rookies Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster, each first-round picks, while San Francisco will also hope for a re-emerging season from edge defender Aaron Lynch. With the ageless veteran Elvis Dumervil and NaVorro Bowman guiding them, this team could be solid on the front seven. Key word, could, as we just don’t know yet.”
Plus, the defensive scheme run by new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will be much different than the one in recent seasons by the 49ers. Saleh’s defense, patterned on the one run in Seattle and Jacksonville (where Saleh coached) is more of a 4-3 (rather than 3-4) set, with a strong safety playing close to the line of scrimmage to help against the run. The linebacking crew still has question marks, but if Foster and Bowman are healthy – and Buckner, Armstead and Thomas can quickly learn their roles – the 49ers’ front seven could be much better than it was in 2016.
Players will report to training camp July 27. Then, work begins under Saleh to install the new system, find out who works best where and gather momentum for the season opener. Certainly, Saleh knows exactly how he wants his players to play.
Said Saleh, this spring: “Attacking the ball, all gas, no brakes and playing with extreme violence.”