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Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today’s NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
For the second consecutive season, the 49ers played championship-caliber defense. Last year’s unit topped the league in the statistic that is most important to NFL success, allowing the fewest points in the league. Most of their other statistics were good as well, though there were some oddities. San Francisco tied Pittsburgh for the most interceptions with 20, yet they ended up in the middle of the pack in total takeaways because they were last with three fumble recoveries. The run defense was stellar, allowing the second-fewest yards and the lowest yards per carry. Meanwhile, passing yards was one of the few categories where they ranked in the bottom half of the league, and that was despite putting up 44 sacks. As one might expect, there were not a lot of personnel changes in the off-season, but the few they made could make them even better.
San Francisco boasts the 2022 sack king in Nick Bosa, who piled up 18. The 2019 second-overall pick is more than just a pass rusher, though. Bose is just as good against the run and was one of five edge defenders to exceed 40 solo tackles last year. At age 25, he is among the NFL's elite three-down edge defenders and is set to be a cornerstone of the 49ers' defense for the next several years.
On the fantasy side of things, Bosa rests firmly on the elite, first tier of defenders across all positions. His average of twelve points per game was second only to Maxx Crosby among defensive linemen, and that was without another great pass rusher in the mix to keep offenses honest in their blocking schemes. With the addition of Javon Hargrave in free agency and the promotion of last year’s second-round pick, Drake Jackson, to the starting lineup, Bosa should have plenty of help in 2023.
Jackson’s role was limited as a rookie, but he gave the organization plenty of reason for optimism. Before being inactive for some games late in the season, Jackson managed 14 combined tackles with 3 sacks, a pick, and 6 others batted passes on 315 snaps. Coach Shanahan was candid when asked about Jackson’s status at the end of the year, pointing to conditioning and saying that the season got too long and he wore down. Jackson is not the first player to hit the rookie wall, and he won’t be the last. He has worked diligently over the off-season to ensure there will be no repeat of the problem.
Actions speak louder than words, so here are some actions that make me think Jackson could break out in year two. He has hit the conditioning and weight room hard. Jackson was undersized at 254 pounds entering his rookie campaign. Both he and the organization realized he needed to get bigger and stronger, especially considering he played well at around 270 while at USC. He is now up to about 273. Then there are the actions of the organization that suggest a great deal of confidence in the second-year pro. Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu played 1341 snaps between them last season and were tied for the second most sacks on the team with four and a half each. Both of those players are gone, opening a clear path to the starting job.
Kerry Hyder and former Raiders first-round pick Clelin Ferrell should land the backup roles. Hyders is a proven dependable veteran presence that can get the job done when called upon. He has starting experience from his time in Detroit, as well as a handful of games with San Francisco, and has put up eight sacks in two of his six years as a pro. Ferrell is a reclamation project after being a colossal bust for the Raiders. His 58 tackles, 42 assists, and nine sacks over four seasons are simply not acceptable numbers for a guy drafted fourth overall. The team hopes a change of scenery will rekindle the flame that made him such a high pick.
The 49ers have been without a difference-maker at the tackle position since they let DeForest Buckner get away after the 2019 season. Javon Kinlaw was supposed to be that guy, but injuries derailed his career early. He has never gotten back on track. With the signing of Hargrave, the problem is solved.
Four years in the Steelers 3-4 saw Hargrave play well and become productive. Between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, he averaged 33-20-5. Then came the move to Philadelphia, where he lined up as the three-technique tackle in a 4-3. Over the last two seasons, Hargrave has combined for 63 tackles, 59 assists, 19 sacks, and four turnovers, including career highs in solo tackles with 37, sacks with 11, and turnovers with 3 in 2022. There is always some risk when a player changes teams after a big year, but Hargrave should be a great fit in San Francisco’s aggressive one-gap approach. He finished seventh among interior linemen last season and is a good bet to make another appearance in the top ten this year.
Arik Armstead rounds out the starting lineup. The former first-round pick (2015) is a quick and athletic 290 pounds. He is solid versus the run and has plenty of wiggle to be a considerable contributor as an inside pass rusher. Between 2018 and 2021, Armstead averaged 32-22-6, with his best production coming in 2019 at 33-22-10 and 3 turnovers. The numbers would be strong for a defensive tackle, but keep in mind that Armstead worked mostly at defensive end before shifting inside in Week 7 of the 2021 season. In thirteen games as a tackle, he is 28-27-5. With Bosa and Hargrave getting all the attention, I like Armstead’s chances of being a quality option for those in tackle-required formats.
In Kevin Givins, T.Y. McGill, and Marlon Davidson, the 49ers have good veteran depth on the inside. Kinlaw remains in the mix as well and has the extra motivation of being in the final year of his rookie contract.
- DE Nick Bosa – Elite tier DL1
- DE Drake Jackson – High upside sleeper
- DE Kerry Hyder Jr – Has some upside if he gets on the field enough
- DE Clelin Ferrell – No grand expectations
- DE Austin Bryant – No impact
- DE Robert Beal Jr. – Rookie project
- DT Arik Armstead – Solid DT2 with some upside
- DT Javon Hargrave – Potential elite tier DT1 or solid DL2 in formats that don’t break out the positions
- DT Javon Kinlaw – No impact
- DT Kevin Givens – No impact
- DT Marlon Davidson – No impact
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