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PFF rates 49ers’ OL and Defensive Front as Bottom 10 units. Are They?

Jul 14, 2016 at 10:32 PM14

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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.

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.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Offensive Line:

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.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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.

I want to hear from you, 49er fans. Please vote in the poll below, and feel free to explain your vote in the comments section.


  • Are the 49ers offensive and defensive fronts among the bottom ten units in the league?
  • No. Last year was an outlier.
  • Offense yes; defense no.
  • Yes, both are terrible.
  • Defense yes; offense no.
  • 426 votes
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Lucky Phil
    We got any John Miller aka Donald Drumpf fans here? If I had to guess Double D would be one of the top ten OL in the league. There's no bigger pile of Bull Drop in the NFL bigger than Drumpf. Believe me!... If Donald doesn't get elected president, can Don become the Niners GM next year. Believe me! No one can save this team but Double D.
    Jul 26, 2016 at 4:54 PM
  • Douglas Francis
    The good news is TrentBaalke is slowly being shown the door with Gamble being named Assistant GM today. There's no where to go but up and the defense is slightly ahead of the offense. At least on defense my NINERS have proven veterans to speed up the learning curve. However, the offense is another story entirely. TorreySmith is our #1 receiver by default, JoeStaley is the only credible veteran on offense and since no team in the league respects our WR corps or OL or QB; defenses will simply crowd the line to stuff the run! CarlosHyde is one of our only credible weapons (OK WR Smith too)! If we were in win now mode I'd be beyond pissed but this is the second year of a Rebuild. It's my guess that better Offensive reinforcements will be added via the 2017 NFL Draft. By week 8 I expect TrentBaalke to be Fired/Demoted! #49erBockers
    Jul 25, 2016 at 2:18 PM
  • Nick
    The best thing about the off season is the excitement and optimism about the upcoming season. I agree there will be an improvement but on the other hand the O line was downright awful last season and Baalke still kept his job! With improvement this season he will look like a saviour to the niners which cannot be further from the truth. God help us !
    Jul 20, 2016 at 7:43 AM
  • Ian Moone
    Lots of ifs...If Dorsey and Williams get/stay healthy, if Lynch comes back strong after being gone for 4 games, IF Tank, Harold and Dial realize even part of their potential...TOO many IFs...i'd be thrilled if DLine can be 17-21. OLine is just awful, i suppose scheme may help mask lack of talent but it'd be a stretch to find 10 OLines we are better than! Maybe 22-25? We are in for a loooong season if all goes really well, plus some luck we win 7...on paper we are maybe a 4-5 win team
    Jul 18, 2016 at 4:58 PM
  • Ron Stuart
    The defensive line is an ian Williams away from taking over the NFC west, and that is no exaggeration. No running with the pass rush from hell with 3 players pushing 7ft 300lbsers that can move quickly. There is only 1 concern as was pointed out n this article. If Trent Brown gets into shape? The 49ers PA system will be playing Guns & Roses Welcome to the Jungle in the opposing teams locker room...
    Jul 18, 2016 at 1:44 AM
  • David Mazzini
    Great article; you have excellent perspective, this team isn't to far from turning the corner and I think that will be sooner rather than later. One thing that gets overlooked is the type of players they have from a mental and intellectual standpoint, lot's of high football I.Q.'s on that roster coupled with the willingness to learn and a yearning to be great,this team and organization is not the shit show most people perceive it to be
    Jul 15, 2016 at 6:03 PM
  • Chris
    Frank, I agree. These people talking about Hardy need to realize he is a cancer. Young players with issues sometimes can be steered in the right direction, but a vet who clearly feels he did nothing wrong is a player to stay away from.
    Jul 15, 2016 at 10:31 AM
  • Niner
    Your record is what you are. All this gonna be stuff is for losers who want to keep fan Intrest. Until they play a regular game and show they aren't York/baalkes garbage, it's nonsense. Love him or hate him, harbaugh won, Nolan sing, Ericsson, Tomsula could not.
    Jul 15, 2016 at 8:04 AM
  • Frank
    All these comments about how we should have added hardy are ridiculous! SF has a young squad you don't want them learning from someone like him. He's also a 4-3 DE not a 3-4 OLB.
    Jul 15, 2016 at 7:15 AM
  • MosesZD
    The offensive line needs a lot of work. Staley is good. Kilgore is good. Beadles is unknown. Garnett is unknown (though they skipped him for Thomas) and we don't know who'll be the RT. But the analysis they did on the front seven was crap. Simply put, the front seven was outstanding at stopping the run (well under 4.0 YPC) however the nickle defense wasn't (gave up 2.0 YPC than the base). So they comingled the base (front 7) with the nickle (65% of the defensive snaps) to shoot the front 7 down. Also, two of the front 7 were on their top-10 pass-rusher lists -- Lynch (edge) and Armstead (3-4 DE). But I'm not surprised. PFF has their narratives and anything that contradicts them must be ignored or minimized.
    Jul 15, 2016 at 6:30 AM
  • don
    It's hard to believe after last year we are still discussing Erik Pears as a first team player. The O line scares me.
    Jul 15, 2016 at 5:29 AM
  • Great Ed
    Great Article I've been saying the same thing about both units! I like our guard situation (somebody's gonna have 2 bring it 2 beat out Tiller, which bodes well for the team!). As for Brown, getting in shape is what this time of year is for!!! The defense is in great shape, especially if/when Williams & Dorsey get healthy!!!
    Jul 15, 2016 at 4:21 AM
  • Dietrich from maui
    I wish we would take a flier on Hardy.. he's a cancer but a short term fix. Pass rush is our weakness imho
    Jul 15, 2016 at 2:09 AM
  • Ladale
    You make good points and the article gives reason for optimism. What I would say is that pressure bust the pipe and there is no reason to assume the 9ers will be good off the edge. And why not take a chance on Greg Hardy to at least upgrade competition.
    Jul 15, 2016 at 1:54 AM

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