In 2015, 49ers linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch led the team with 6½ sacks each. Their combined total of 13 was nearly half of the team’s 28 over 16 games. NaVorro Bowman and Quinton Dial were next on the list with 2½ sacks each.
When it came to putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season, the 49ers ranked 29th in the NFL. Meanwhile, 49ers quarterbacks were sacked 53 times.
It’s no coincidence that getting to the quarterback is important to defensive success. The roll call of teams with the worst sack totals all missed the playoffs in 2015: Atlanta (19), Buffalo (21), New York Giants (23), 49ers (28), Browns (29) and Dallas, Miami and New Orleans (31 each) and San Diego (32). Meanwhile, the league’s top teams represented defenses with the best pass rushes. Super Bowl champion Denver (52), New England (49), Pittsburgh (48), Kansas City (47), Houston (45) and Carolina (44) led the way in sacks.
So, as 49ers general manager Trent Baalke studies up on available free agents and college prospects available this offseason, he’ll need to add a dynamic pass rusher or two to help his team rebound from a 5-11 season in which San Francisco’s defense was one of the worst in the NFL. The 49ers ranked 29th in total defense, allowing an average of 387. 4 yards per game – more than 100 yards per game more than the No. 1 Broncos (283.1).
Baalke knows the 49ers have needs across the board – especially at quarterback, inside linebacker, wide receiver and offensive line – but getting an edge rusher or two at defensive end or outside linebacker could take a lot of pressure off the back end of the defense.
How weak was the 49ers’ pass rush in 2015? In one game against Baltimore, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco dropped back to pass 53 times – and wasn’t sacked once.
As former 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula said at the time, “We need to generate more pressure there.”
Unfortunately for Tomsula, that never happened.
The 49ers have some flexibility under the salary cap and could spend to bring in an impact pass rusher. One possibility might be Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, who had 12 sacks in 2015 out of New York’s similar 3-4 defensive front. Pro Football Focus, the analytics website, wrote that Wilkerson is, “A true every-down player” who “brings with him the ability to wreak havoc against the run and put a hurting on the quarterback.”
Another candidate could be Vinny Curry, a defensive end at Philadelphia, where new 49ers head coach Chip Kelly coached for three seasons. Curry had nine sacks in 2014.
Also available might by the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul, who was an elite pass-rushing defensive end before a severe hand injury cost him much of the 2015 season. He had 12½ sacks in 2014, but just one in eight games this season. Pro Football Focus noted, however, that Paul still had a high grade as a pass rusher over those eight games.
With the seventh overall pick in the first round, the 49ers also could go for a pass rusher high in the draft. SB Nation’s most recent mock draft has them taking defensive end-outside linebacker Noah Spence of Eastern Kentucky. Writer Dan Kadar wrote, “He’s a fluid edge rusher with quickness and the skills to line up at end or linebacker. San Francisco needs to get better at rushing the passer, and Spence is the player who can do it.”