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No one can blame the 49ers' shortcomings in 2021 on the defense. This unit was middle of the pack versus the pass but that was their lowest mark. San Francisco finished fourth against the run at four yards per carry, forced more fumbles (22) than any team in the league, totaled 20 takeaways, and their 48 sacks ranked fifth. As one might expect after such a solid performance, there are no jaw-dropping changes to this unit in 2022, but there are several tweaks and a few new faces.
Nick Bosa was impressive as a rookie in 2019, totaling 47 tackles, 9 sacks, and 4 turnovers. After missing virtually all of 2020 with a knee injury, a lot of eyes were on him entering last year. When Bosa opened the year with seven tackles, three sacks, and a forced fumble in the first two games, both IDP managers and the 49ers organization breathed a big sigh. Bosa went on to finish with 52 combined tackles, 15.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles, establishing himself as one of the game’s elite edge defenders at the ripe old age of 24.
Bosa is a foundational cornerstone and will be a fixture in San Francisco for years to come. The rest of the front four, however, will look a little different in 2022. Arik Armstead was the other starting defensive end last year. Going forward, most of his playing time is expected to come on the inside, replacing D.J. Jones who moved on to Denver. The team brought back Kerry Hyder Jr, who spent last year with Seattle, and picked USC defensive end, Drake Jackson, in round two of the draft. They also hope to finally get some return on their investment in Dee Ford who has missed most of the last two seasons with a bad back.
From an IDP perspective, there is no clear picture beyond Bosa, but there is certainly some potential here. Hyder filled in nicely when Bosa was lost in 2020, finishing the season with 48 combined tackles and 8.5 sacks. He has bounced around the league, playing with four teams over his five seasons, but has produced when given relevant playing time. Hyder had eight sacks for Detroit as a rookie in 2016. He earned a starting job with the Lions in 2017 but suffered a season-ending injury early in the campaign. If he emerges as a three-down starter, Hyder could be as much as a decent DL2. Chances are, he will end up in some sort of rotation.
Drake Jackson is an interesting prospect with plenty of long-term potential. He is all but certain to see significant time as a rookie but we should not count on him starting right out of the gate. At 254 pounds, Jackson is undersized for a three-down role. Most scouting reports agree that he will need to add some muscle and toughness to improve as a point of attack defender at the NFL level. This should not be a problem for the young man, who played effectively at around 270 early in his career with the Trojans. Jackson shed some of that weight to become more effective as a stand-up pass rusher. His college numbers were not flashy with 12.5 career sacks (5 last season) but he is relentless and has all the tools to develop into a quality every-down contributor.
The wildcard here is Dee Ford. The last time he was healthy for a full season was in 2018. That year, Ford racked up 41-12-13.5 and forced six fumbles while with the Chiefs. That earned him a big free-agent contract with San Francisco in 2019 but the team is still waiting for some return on their investment. Ford has battled a back injury for nearly all of his three years with San Francisco. If not for the cap implications, they might have already given up on him. As it stands, he will have one more opportunity to prove his worth. Unfortunately, that is not going well already as Ford has not participated in OTAs thus far.
When Javon Kinlaw was drafted 14th overall in 2020, the organization believed he would be the replacement for DeForest Buckner. So far, that has not worked out very well. Kinlaw followed a rather mediocre rookie season with a knee injury that caused him to miss most of 2021. He should be ready to go for 2022, but will he ever become the player the team expected? The organization remains all in on Kinlaw, or at least that’s what they are saying. In reality, the jury is still out.
Pre-draft scouting reports compared Kinlaw to guys like Chris Jones, Jarran Reed, and yes, Buckner himself, but so far he has not been that guy. In an article from San Francisco 49ers News, Kinlaw is likened to a 2022 version of Ted Washington who was a big powerful road grader in the middle. While that is not a bad thing for his team, it is not a shining endorsement for yours.
Shifting Arik Armstead inside seems like a great move for both the team and the player. At 6’7” and 290 pounds, he is an excellent run defender with some rush ability but lacks the speed and explosiveness of a great outside pass rusher. As a defensive end, Armstead produced fewer than four sacks in five of his seven NFL seasons. With D.J. Jones moving on and Kinlaw to soak up double teams inside, Armstead could see a lot of success both on the field and in the box scores. For managers in leagues that still call him a defensive end, Armstead will hold marginal value. For those who can play him as an interior lineman, he could be a solid number one.
The 49ers have a lot of depth on the defensive line. Samson Ebukam, Jordan Willis, Kevin Givens, Maurice Hurst, and Hassan Ridgeway are all veterans, most of them with at least some starting experience. Givens will likely see time as the third man in the inside rotation. Ridgeway, Willis, and possibly Hurst could be on the roster bubble.
- DE Nick Bosa – Potential elite tier DL1
- DE Dee Ford – Injury risk outweighs the potential
- DE Drake Jackson – Marginal expectations short-term but plenty of long-term upside
- DE Kerry Hyder Jr – DL2 potential if he somehow comes out of camp as a three-down starter
- DE Samson Ebukam – No impact expected
- DE Jordan Willis – No impact
- DT Arik Armstead – Low-end DT1 or priority second starter
- DT Javon Kinlaw – Boom or bust prospect
- DT Kevin Givens – Marginal impact
- DT Maurice Hurst – No impact expected
- DT Hassan Ridgeway – No impact
- DT Kalia Davis – Developmental rookie
There is no guesswork when it comes to the San Francisco linebackers. Fred Warner is going to be the man in the middle and Dre Greenlaw is expected to play the weak side. Both will stay on the field in most sub-packages. Azeez Al-Shaair will man the strong side when the 49ers deploy three linebackers.
San Francisco hit the jackpot when they stole Warner in round three of the 2018 draft. He has become one of the NFL's outstanding, three-down middle linebackers, and a dependable, every-week must-start for IDP managers. Warner has everything teams look for in a middle backer. He plays the run well and rarely misses a tackle, is one of the game’s better coverage linebackers, makes his share of game-changing plays, and is a leader.
In fantasy terms, Warner is an exceptionally consistent every-week play. He missed a game with a sore hamstring last year and was affected by the injury in two others. Beyond those three games, Warner reached double-digit fantasy points in every outing last year. Over his four seasons as a pro, he has averaged 84 solo tackles and 43 assists, 4 turnovers, and 6 passes defended. Warner has ranked as high as seventh (2019) and has never finished lower than 17 among linebackers. Production says Warner is a quality LB2 but dependability might be enough to warrant drafting him at the bottom of round one.
Dre Greenlaw is an under-the-radar prospect that might prove a lot more valuable than his current, late-round ADP. He became a starter during his rookie season in 2019, taking over when Kwon Alexander went down. When all the numbers were in, Greenlaw was 65-27-1 on about 73% of the snaps that year. The program repeated in 2020 with Alexander playing through Week 6 before being lost. Greenlaw ended up playing roughly 70% of the snaps that season, going 61-24-1 with an interception. He opened the 2021 season as the starting weakside linebacker, recording four tackles, two assists, and an interception return for a score in the first half against Detroit in Week 1, before suffering a groin injury in the second quarter that would land him on IR. Greenlaw returned late in the year, just in time to record 12 combined tackles against the Rams in Week 18.
Greenlaw is healthy and set to return to the role of three-down weak side linebacker in 2022. Though he has not shown a great deal of splash-play prowess so far with two sacks and two interceptions on over about 1650 plays, a little basic math tells us that, on a per snap basis, Greenlaw has been just as productive as Warner in the tackle columns. His tackle numbers alone are enough to make Greenlaw a decent third starter or excellent depth in most leagues. Target him as your fifth linebacker and you will not be disappointed.
With Greenlaw out most of last season, the 49ers discovered another defensive weapon when Azeez Al-Shaair took over and the team did not miss a beat. Al-Shaair played so well in fact, that the coaching staff was reluctant to take him out of the lineup when Greenlaw returned late in the season. As teams prepare for training camps, the expectation is for Al-Shaair to start on the strong side when the team uses three linebacker personnel. That said, no one would be shocked if he pushes Greenlaw this summer. Al-Shaair finished last season at 60-44-2 with 4 turnovers and five passes defended, with an average of 11.7 fantasy points per game, despite playing just under 65% of the team’s defensive snaps. This is a situation we will keep an eye on throughout the summer. Whoever starts on the weakside is going to have IDP value. If it is not Al-Shaair, be ready to snap him up in the event Warner or Greenlaw are injured.
San Francisco uses nickel personnel in their base packages much of the time. With three strong starters at the second level, one injury at the linebacker position would not be devastating. Beyond the top three, however, is a significant drop-off. Oren Burks has some experience from his time with Green Bay but was never able to earn more than a limited role, despite the team’s marginal talent at the position. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles is a special team's ace with 18 tackles over his two years in the league. Everyone else in the locker room is an undrafted rookie or tryout player hoping to catch on.
- MLB Fred Warner – High-end LB2
- WLB Dre Greenlaw – Solid LB3 or excellent depth
- SLB/WLB Azeez Al-Shaair – Watch list player with good value if he lands a starting role
- MLB Oren Burks – No impact
- SLB Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles – No impact
- WLB Curtis Robinson – No impact
- SLB Jeremiah Gemmel – No impact
- WLB Segun Olubi – No impact
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