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What if the 49ers’ defense is actually good this season?


In what should’ve been the slowest football news week on the calendar, Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett tickled 49ers fans and opened up some unexplored possibilities for the approaching 2017 NFL season.

While working out with DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair and Eli Harold in Hawaii, Bennett told a local television station Buckner could win defensive player of the year in the future.

“I think he has the talent to be able to do that,” Bennett said. “I keep telling him there’s nobody like him. He’s not normal. His physique, his speed, it’s not normal so when you’re not normal you can do not normal things and winning the defensive MVP is not normal for most people.”

A) Thank you to Bennett for tutoring Buckner on some tricks of the trade. The 49ers are moons away from the Super Bowl-contending Seahawks, so it’s hard to consider them a hated divisional rival anymore. While the Hawaii trip is mostly working out and teaching each other different techniques, Seattle’s scheme will undoubtedly come up. Who knows how much information Bennett divulged, but 49ers coaches and fans hope Buckner and company were inquisitive sponges. Certain offensive lines around the league attack Seattle’s scheme in unique ways. There are tips to be had.

B) The Bennett quote makes me think about this question: What if Buckner — and this entire defense — take an unexpected leap in 2017?

Think about this: Buckner was still able to produce a buzzworthy rookie season despite playing in Jim O’Neil’s flawed scheme, despite a rash of injuries that wiped out NaVorro Bowman, Eric Reid and Armstead, despite playing 1,006 snaps — which other coaches around the league have hinted was reckless. He has serious improvements to make as a run defender, but Buckner has the skill set and size to win on every down in the NFL.

So … What if Seattle’s scheme is a much better fit for his skill set? What if Bowman and Reuben Foster are clobbering people in the middle of the field? What if Elvis Dumervil reignites his career as dependable LEO? What if Solomon Thomas uses those violent hands to disrupt the flow of an opposing offenses? What if Jimmie Ward wraps a blanket around the entire field at box safety and Eric Reid becomes a turnover machine closer to the action? What if Rashard Robinson is that No. 1 cornerback John Lynch said he was on KNBR?

My apologies for getting you irrationally enthusiastic about a unit that still has holes, but there is a distinct possibility this San Francisco defense holds its own come December. The above paragraph is not gibberish. Those are all talented players, and in a new scheme, could be molded together to form a brick wall. And if this defense finishes in the top half of the league, contributes to wins, sends a player or two to the Pro Bowl and Foster or Thomas are up to win rookie of the year — the 49ers could be playing meaningful football games in November and December.

I know this seems like crazy talk, but Bennett started this conversation. Kyle Shanahan has worked with much less on offense before — the 2011 Redskins starred a Rex Grossman/Roy Helu/Jabar Gaffney trio. They still moved the football. Shanahan’s offense won’t be routinely hitting second half walls like you saw with Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick. And if you give the 37-year-old head coach a defense who can keep the game close this soon in Year 1, watch out.

Much of this scenario depends on first-year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. It’s unrealistic to expect him to call flawless games from that side of the football, but there is a reason Shanahan hired this guy. Saleh’s creative. He’s a willing teacher in the classroom. And he’ll immediately win over the fan base if the 49ers stop the run. San Francisco finished with the third-worst run defense in NFL history last season (165.9 yards allowed per game).

Saleh might be able to deliver on that wish, because quarterbacks are going to attack the secondary. Luckily for Saleh, he’ll avoid Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan on the schedule, while O’Neil couldn’t in 2016. On the docket this time around: Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, Eli Manning, Marcus Mariota and of course Russell Wilson. But getting Jared Goff and the aging Carson Palmer twice is a nice reprieve.

I’ve maintained the 49ers are going to have bumps and bruises in the secondary, potentially some serious ones. Lynch and Shanahan are a Robinson injury away from having Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser start at cornerback. That probably would end up being a debacle. Ward could slide down from deep safety back to cornerback, but then your entire plan will have gone awry. Part of the reason Lynch didn’t take a safety early in the draft is because the team felt Ward could develop into a reliable back-end stopper. Now you’re playing musical chairs in the secondary, the whole reason Seattle’s defensive scheme works in the first place.

The more likely result is a mix of highs and lows in Year 1. An outstanding game-winning forced fumble from Foster and then a mental error that costs the 49ers a win. Ward blows a coverage one week and comes up with a key interception the next. The run defense shuts down Carolina and Seattle to start the year and are then gashed by Arizona and Los Angeles.

Shanahan and Lynch can live with that. And everyone recognizes that this isn’t Jim Harbaugh ready to walk in and a guide a team to a 13-3 record.

But the more we look at and talk about this defense, there’s a chance for them to play well together in 2017.

 

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