Pro Football Focus (PFF) has provided their rankings for each position group on each team, and they were predictably harsh on the 49ers. As a team that has succeeded in the recent past by running the ball and stopping the run, it must be concerning to 49er fans to see that PFF has the 49ers defensive front seven ranked 23rd out of 32 teams, and the offensive line rated at 26th overall. The 49ers struggled offensively and defensively last year, but it still bears investigating this evaluation against the 49ers roster to see if both of these units truly belong in the bottom third of the league.
Before getting to the 49ers, it is important to consider PFF and their methods. PFF tracks advanced stats for every player in the NFL and many players in NCAA football. PFF has algorithms for assigning degrees of success and blame to the outcome of plays at an individual level. They use these grades to rank players, and they tend to rank units based on team stats and individual scores. The system gets muddied a bit when it isn't readily apparent who the starters are in a particular unit. In these scenarios, PFF attempts to predict starters based upon snap counts and overall grades. The evaluators at PFF do not attend practices or media sessions; they do not tend to interact directly with players or coaches. At PFF, the film and its resulting grades rule. Because of this, PFF may not be privy to the offseason progress a player might be making, "buzz" that the coaching staff may be circulating around a player, or unique ways a player might be used within the unit's scheme. As a result, the projected starting lineups may not be accurate, which could skew scores.
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Defensive Front Seven:
PFF Ranking: 23
Why it's fair: PFF gives the front seven credit for playing stout against the run in its base 3-4, directly complimenting the play of nose tackle Ian Williams. They also point out the almost 2 additional yards per carry the defense gave up in sub packages, versus their performance on base downs. It seems clear that this is the most obvious area where the 49ers defense suffered from the retirement of Justin Smith. His ability to collapse the pocket and play stout and disruptive against the run in the Nickle and Dime sets was instrumental to the success of the 49ers defense. While it's nice to see Williams receive proper respect, it's never a good sign when the highest rated guy in your unit plays roughly 40% of the snaps.
Why it could be worse: Ian Williams hasn't practiced yet this offseason, and there's no certainty that he'll be suiting up week 1 against the Rams. Glenn Dorsey is also injured and the timetable for his return is uncertain. Ahmad Brooks has been in slow decline for years. Aaron Lynch may miss more time in 2016 from unresolved back problems.
Why it could be better: PFF doesn't even list Arik Armstead as a starter, based upon his snap counts in 2015, but he was their highest rated 3-4 DE at pass rushing, in a per snap basis. He didn't collect many sacks, but he consistently collapsed the pocket and forced the quarterback off of his mark. Reports out of practices indicate that Armstead has been all over the 4 man front on passing downs, and has even rotated out to OLB occasionally on base downs. Tank Carradine has slimmed down, Eli Harold has bulked up, and both have gained praise on their improved play, which could greatly aid the 49ers outside rush and pull some attention from Aaron Lynch, the team's best pass rusher. NaVorro Bowman is a year further into his recovery from a gruesome knee injury that robbed him of much of his acceleration and lateral agility in 2015.
My Take: I think the defense takes a major step forward this year, and it is keyed by a much-improved performance by the front seven. Arik Armstead looks like he chiseled away all of the chub to replace all of his soft parts with stone, and he has evidently carried that determination from the weight room to the field. Barring injury, I have no doubt he starts at one of the defensive end positions. DeForest Buckner is a monster who employs unfair leverage and surprising agility to dominate in tight spaces. Quinton Dial can hold down the NT position until Williams returns (as he has done capably in the past), before adding impressive depth to the DE positions. Williams' return will bolster the run defense on base downs. Having Bowman back close to 100% can't be overstated. The man is special, and he was impressive while he was in significant pain with limited range of motion and limited confidence in the joint. He has self-reported that he is much more confident now, and that he can play without hesitation or caution. There's no reason to doubt these reports, as he has been remarkably candid about the health of his knee throughout the recovery process.
Bottom line: I think this unit steps up into the top half of the league in 2016, as preparation for another step up into the top 10 in 2017.
PFF Rank: 26
Why it's fair: Erik Pears is awful, Trent Brown is reportedly out of shape, Zane Beadles hasn't played particularly well for years, and Daniel Kilgore hasn't completed a 16 game season yet. This unit was so talent deficient just one year ago that they traded for and immediately started a Guard named Jordan Devey who was so bad that he made Tom Brady look terrible, before the Patriots benched Devey and went on to win the Super Bowl.
Why it could be worse: Erik Pears is still taking starter's reps at Right Tackle. Marcus Martin is the replacement for Kilgore, should he fall, and Martin is guilty of some of the most boneheaded blocking decisions I have ever seen. There is no one who can approach Staley's production or talent if he goes down, and he has seemed to have more significant injury scares each year as he continues to age (remember him screaming uncontrollably as the tv feed cut to commercial?). The only depth the 49ers added for either tackle position was in the form of a CFL free agent signing and two 5th round draft picks. Zane Beadles, who thrived in the outside zone scheme of the Denver Broncos, but who struggled with the downhill physicality asked of him in Jacksonville, could struggle with the downhill physicality asked of him in Chip Kelly's inside zone-based rushing attack.
Why it could be better: Daniel Kilgore missed time over the past two seasons for the same injury, which he is now fully recovered from, allowing the 49ers best, smartest, and most athletic center an opportunity to start all 16 games at the second most important position on the line. The monstrous and physical elephant in the room, Josh Garnett, was not listed as a starter on PFF's projection, but he will almost certainly start and dominate in the run game. While he was not as dominant as a pass protector, he improved that aspect of his game throughout the last season, and either player he's replacing (Devey or Alex Boone) had their own struggles in that capacity. Zane Beadles could enjoy a career renaissance in his return to a zone blocking scheme, even though inside zone is significantly different than outside zone, especially the way Chip Kelly runs it. Chip Kelly's practices operate at such a high tempo that offensive linemen get into top shape simply by running plays. As long as Trent Brown stays on the field, his conditioning issues should fall by the wayside, and he should realize the impressive potential he demonstrated while starting the last two games of 2015. Chip Kelly's scheme, play-calling, and clock management give his offense an advantage by causing hesitation and mistakes by the defense, which the offensive linemen can use to their advantage.
My Take: I don't think the Chip Kelly angle can be overstated. I think the ability to keep a defense off balance with play-calling and varied tempo (it's not all go, all the time) provides a tangible advantage (the defense is tired, unprepared for the next play to start, unable to make pre-snap adjustments, or caught in the middle of an adjustment at the start of the play) and equally important perceived advantages (if the offensive linemen feel they have the defense frustrated and guessing, they feel emboldened and play more confidently). Any offensive line with a star left tackle, a good center, and an obscenely talented right tackle has potential to be very good. Should Beadles falter, Andrew Tiller can step in and provide immediate physicality and dependability, though he has limited athleticism. Garnett should bring the physicality the run game lost with Mike Iupati's departure, without being as much of a liability in pass protection. If Brown can get in shape and stay in shape, Erik Pears should never see a regular season snap on offense.
Bottom line: There's been a lot of moving around, and continuity is the name of the game on the line. They have the personnel to be a top 10 offensive line, but they might not get there by the start of the season. I see them getting there over the last half of the season, as Brown and Garnett learn and grow, and as the players bond into a unit.
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