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4 Days till Camp: Will defensive line upgrades allow 49ers to contend?



© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA – One of the great disappointments of the 49ers’ 2018 campaign was the disappointing performance of the defensive line; aside from DeForest Buckner. Reinforcements arrived in the 2019 offseason, and by all accounts, the defensive line is poised for a massive improvement this year.

Nick Bosa was drafted second overall, and Dee Ford, a Pro Bowl edge rusher whose 13 sacks were tied for seventh-best in the NFL last season, was signed to a five-year, $87 million deal.

Ford should remain a dominant edge rusher and see himself rushing free in some wide-nine alignments. Anything less than challenging for Defensive Rookie of the Year would be a disappointment for Bosa.

The last defensive end to win AP Defensive Rookie of the Year was, of course, Joey Bosa, who had 10.5 sacks, 41 combined tackles, 17 tackles for a loss and 21 quarterback hits (while missing four games to a hamstring injury) in 2016. Before the older Bosa, it was Aaron Donald, who had 9.0 sacks, 47 combined tackles, 18 tackles for a loss and 13 quarterback hits in 16 games in 2014.

Are those Pro Bowl stats high standards to aspire to in a rookie year? Sure. But Nick Bosa was the second overall pick. If he’s not remotely close to to those numbers, it would be a disappointment, whether the cause is injury, performance or both. Nick Bosa will be expected to notch a half dozen sacks and consistently pressure the quarterback.

Here’s a look at some of the other weapons the Kris Kocurek-coached defensive line will likely have next season, based on their previous seasons:

Nick Bosa: (sophomore year of college, injured in junior year): 34 total tackles, 9.5 sacks in 14 games at Ohio State

Arik Armstead: 48 combined tackles (t-31st for defensive linemen)

Dee Ford: 55 combined tackles, 13 sacks (t-7th)

DeForest Buckner: 67 combined tackles (3rd for defensive linemen), 12 sacks (t-14th)

Ronald Blair: 36 combined tackles, 5.5 sacks (t-45th for defensive linemen)

Solomon Thomas: 31 combined tackles, 1 sack

Sheldon Day: 11 combined tackles, 2 sacks

Kentavius Street: Did not play last season, was a 4th round draft pick, had 38 total tackles, 2.5 sacks in 12 games in senior season at NC State

This group should be unquestionably better than the one from last season. While both Thomas and Armstead are returning, they don’t figure to be nearly as crucial as they have been viewed over the past two seasons. That lessened load could encourage the utilization of them in matchups which are more favorable to them. It also figures to force both players to reach another level if they want to secure solid minutes.

Thomas dealt with the death of his sister last season, and has returned this year with a renewed focus. Armstead has failed to live up to his pedigree, but he’ll likely be better than most backup edge rushing options, and again, Robert Saleh will be able to pick and choose his spots with both him and Thomas.

Meanwhile, there will be serious competition for the second interior line spot alongside Buckner, with Sheldon Day, Ronald Blair and Kentavius Street all in the running. Blair had a solid 2018 season, and while Day underwhelmed, he got plenty of snaps next to Buckner and is still just 25. Street missed all of the 2018 season with an ACL tear, but looked promising before the injury.

All this is to say that the 49ers have kept their Pro Bowl defensive lineman, added another from the edge, drafted one who projects to get to that level quickly, recovered a promising interior lineman from injury, and kept solid backup options. The real question is how far this group can take the team.

The secondary has failed to add any sort of significant names aside from the oft-injured Jason Verrett, and much of the implied expectation for this season is that the defensive line will add enough pressure to force quarterbacks into bad decisions and shield some of the deficiencies of the secondary. Will the defensive line make such a jump that the defense as a whole improves from woeful to above average, allowing the 49ers to become a playoff contender? We’ll find out soon enough.

Note: This piece is part of a countdown to training camp feature which, each day leading up to the start of training camp on July 27, will take a look at one of the 10 biggest questions the 49ers will have to answer this season. While camp officially starts on July 26, the first practice is July 27.

To read Monday’s piece on Robbie Gould click here.