For the first time since joining the organization, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks addressed the media in 49ers garb.
While far more can be learned about the former Panthers interim head coach from the performance of his defenses (Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals, University of Missouri) over the last decade, he did offer some nuggets on Friday.
Wilks mentioned a host of players, like Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave and Javon Kinlaw — the latter of whom Wilks described as “tremendous since I’ve been here,” having not missed a day of the offseason program.
But there were three players he delved into a bit deeper than the others. The first name is one that looms large in deciding how effective the 49ers’ front will be.
Drake Jackson has added muscle after “inconsistent” rookie year
Wilks pointed out that the identity of this defense, from Day 1 in the Shanahan-Lynch regime, has been defined by its front. With the addition of Kris Kocurek in 2019, that ethos has been rubber stamped.
San Francisco has 170 sacks since 2019, seventh-most in the NFL. That includes the cursed-from-the-get-go 2020 campaign, when they had 30 sacks, 22nd in the league. Excluding that 2020 season, they rank fourth in sacks since 2019 with 140.
But aside from a DPOY season last year from Bosa (18.5 sacks), they lagged in that aspect last season. Samson Ebukam (5.0 sacks) and Charles Omenihu (4.5 sacks) were the only other semi-regular contributors, and both departed this offseason.
That begs questions of Drake Jackson, who had a promising start to his rookie season, and finished fourth on the team in sacks (3.0 last year) before being benched for the final four games of the season and five of the final six, including the entire playoff run.
It was suggested that Jackson wasn’t quite in the physical shape he needed to be in order to sustain an entire season.
Wilks said he needs to and has added weight to his frame.
“Drake has been here all spring working out, doing the things that he needs to do to improve his game,” Wilks said. “He’s gained a lot of weight, he’s in there with Kocurek and I’m just excited to see exactly what he’s going to do and how he’s going to progress in his second year.”
Pressed for more insight, Wilks recognized the peaks and valleys in Jackson’s season.
“A lot of inconsistency, I saw a lot of talent, a lot of skillset, but someone that needs to really, as I just talked about, get a little stronger, get a little bigger,” Wilks said. “He’s working hard, so I’m looking forward to him once again, taking that sophomore leap. That second year and really improving and doing some good things.”
Jackson’s standing is significant because the 49ers have options to make a move.
The team created a substantial amount of cap space by restructuring the deals of Fred Warner and Charvarius Ward, which is part of how they were able to sign Javon Hargrave. A Nick Bosa extension will also likely decrease his first-year cap burden, but the 49ers have a bit of money to work with — roughly $9.8 million in effective cap space, 11th most per OverTheCap — after restructuring Christian McCaffrey’s deal right before the draft.
If Jackson doesn’t look up to snuff — and maybe even if he does — the 49ers are positioned to make a move for a veteran defensive end still hanging out on the market. Their entire defensive end room is comprised of Jackson, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and two rookies in Georgia’s Robert Beal Jr. and undrafted North Dakota State product Spencer Waege.
There are some players like Kerry Hyder Jr. who have inside-outside flexibility, but that’s the main defensive end group. It is decidedly lacking in depth, and with the likes of Frank Clark, Leonard Floyd, Robert Quinn, Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney, Melvin Ingram and others available, it would make quite a bit of sense for the 49ers to get involved in the defensive end market — especially if Jackson can’t sell what he’s offering early in the offseason.
Ji’Ayir Brown was a unanimous election in 49ers draft room
By far the most exciting draft move made by the 49ers was… their selection of Michigan kicker Jake Moody 99th overall.
Wait, no, don’t go. Sorry, Ji’Ayir Brown, the Penn State safety. That’s who we’re talking about.
San Francisco moved up to pick No. 87 — sending 102, 164, and 222 to the Minnesota Vikings to select Brown. He was the fourth safety selected and was extremely well-regarded by scouts and talent evaluators, some of whom had him as the top safety in the draft.
Wilks seemed to share that sentiment, saying everyone in the 49ers war room was “all on the same page in regards to how we felt about him.”
Here’s what Wilks liked about Brown:
His tape just jumped off at you. He just makes plays, but having an opportunity, we didn’t go to the combine, we did zooms, but even when you are there, those 15 minutes don’t give justice for us really trying to get to know someone. And we do a huge thing here where we bring our 30 in all at the same time we have dinner, top golf and as you get into a social setting, I think you have more conversations. He just started growing on me, the conversation that we’re having, his dedication to the game, he’s mature, he sees it with a different lens and I said, this guy right here can be the future for us, so I was excited about it and I’m glad we got him.
While Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson Sr. figure to remain the team’s starters at safety, Gipson Sr. is 33 and considered retirement this offseason. Hufanga is coming off a questionable All-Pro nod, following an outstanding first half of the season and a second half that reaffirmed his coverage liabilities.
In an ideal scenario, Brown would figure as a long-term option next to Hufanga. In the short term, he could be used on special teams and play in some of the three-safety “big nickel” sets the 49ers have employed sparingly in the past. His play speed and knack for the ball should help him find a way onto the field in his rookie year.
Isaiah Oliver viewed as “best nickel in free agency”
An under-the-radar need for the 49ers as nickel. K’Waun Williams signed with the Broncos last season after a strong five-year stint as San Francisco’s slot corner.
While Samuel Womack was drafted with discernible intent to play there, he didn’t seem to do a convincing enough job at the position. Jimmie Ward, after an early-season hand injury, was forced into the nickel role.
Despite his very public qualms with the positional shift — a fair complaint given the potential financial drawbacks as he went into free agency — he was excellent there and offered a substantial amount of positional flexibility on the backend.
The 49ers needed a nickel corner, and former Falcons corner Isaiah Oliver quietly filled that role.
While he’s not a name that jumps off the page, he has high-quality pedigree and projects as a starter.
His name might not be familiar because of an injury history.
On October 5, 2021, Oliver tore his ACL, signing a one-year extension with the Falcons in the offseason. He began the 2022 season on injured reserve and was activated on October 15, making his season debut against the 49ers after missing five games and securing his lone interception of the season.
He was drafted out of Colorado in 2018 as an outside corner, but made a shift to the slot in 2020 and had a fantastic start to his 2021 campaign before his injury.
Over 12 games in 2022 season, Oliver was the 12th-highest rated corner by Pro Football Focus. He’s just 26 and has Wilks excited.
“Oliver is someone that I had the opportunity to go against being in that division and we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in free agency with Jimmie [Ward] and when that didn’t happen, we wanted to make sure that we sort of got the best nickel in free agency,” Wilks said. “That’s what we went out and did, so I’m excited about Oliver. He’s long, he’s physical, can tackle, can cover, he’s going to be a good blitzer for us, everything that we do within this defense.”
The 49ers are a team that has shifted to nickel as their base defense, raising the profile of that position over the traditional WILL linebacker spot in a 4-3 defense. Oliver’s addition on a two-year, $6.75 million deal should be significant.