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Post-Free Agency Roster Analysis: Defense

Mar 30, 2018 at 6:38 AM0

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The 49ers ended the 2017 season as the hottest team in football, winning five straight games with their new franchise quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. After signing Garoppolo to an NFL-record contract extension, the 49ers went into free agency looking to improve their starting units and plug roster holes in advance of the draft. Today we will finish up our two-day look at the state of the 49ers roster after the bulk of free agency. Yesterday, we looked at the 49ers offense. Today, we will look at how well the 49ers addressed their most glaring needs on defense, as well as some options that will be available to further improve those positions in the draft.


Need: The 49ers defensive front was able to generate pressure up the middle, often collapsing the pocket, but the lack of a consistent edge rush allowed too much opportunity for opposing quarterbacks to sidestep pressure and buy enough time to find open targets down the field. One or more dominant edge rushers could feast on quarterbacks who flee the collapsing pocket, or they could force quarterbacks to climb the pocket directly into the 49ers' interior rushers.

The 4-3 under scheme employed by the 49ers under Robert Saleh has historically favored lighter, quicker, more athletic edge rushers who would line up as the LEO (weakside end) or SAM (strongside outside linebacker) on base downs. The LEO and SAM can be similar athletic types in the 240-255 pound range that employ the get-off and agility to penetrate into the backfield quickly and disrupt passing or running plays as they develop. One distinction between the two spots is that the SAM will contend more frequently with tight ends and H-backs on run plays, while having some responsibility to drop into pass coverage. The 49ers are set with players to man the SAM and LEO spots on base downs, so it is not necessary that they target one position more urgently than another, as long as they secure someone to apply quick pressure around the edge of the pocket.

Roster: Solomon Thomas doesn't really belong on this list, but I included him because he plays Big End (AKA: 5-technique or strong side end) on base downs and because he made some news last offseason by training with Demarcus Ware, a dominant edge rusher. Thomas was not particularly effective as an edge rusher in 2017. The 49ers would prefer to move Thomas inside in their nickel and dime defenses (also called "sub packages"), to take advantage of his explosive get-off and superior agility.

RELATED Post Free Agency Roster Analysis: Offense

Arik Armstead is similar to Thomas in that he played defensive end (he lined up at LEO) when the 49ers aligned in their base defense but is at his best as an interior rusher. His get-off is quick enough to grant him an advantage against many guards, but he struggles to eat up the space that offensive tackles can create with their kick slides, and he lacks the flexibility to bend around the edge. His arms are short relative to his height, and long-armed tackles can control his frame too easily. Against guards (who typically have shorter arms than tackles), he can gain a leverage advantage and apply his considerable strength to displace his opponent and pressure the quarterback. He was a disruptive interior rusher prior to 2017. He should not be expected to provide consistent pressure from the edge.

Eli Harold started at SAM last year, and he did a good job of setting the edge against strongside runs. He is an impressive athlete who performs well in coverage, but that athleticism has not translated to his pass rush. Up to this point, Harold has been a shining example of the difference between talent and skill. He checks the boxes as an athlete who should be an impressive edge rusher, but his acceleration goes to waste when he doesn't employ intuitive hand technique to soften the edge to win outside or attack the offensive tackle's upfield arms and shoulder to win inside. GM John Lynch has stated that Harold will have an opportunity to compete at LEO this offseason, but he will need to develop his skill set to include better hand placement, hand violence, and strategy in setting up his opponent.

Cassius Marsh joined the team during the season and quickly received opportunities to contribute as an edge rusher. Marsh has good get-off and decent bend to beat tackles to the outside. He has good hip explosion and hand placement to convert speed to power, turning an edge rush into a bull rush when the offensive tackle overplays to the outside. Unfortunately, he seems to lack the raw muscular power to drive the tackle back with his bull rush once he has him set up. Without a dangerous inside counter or speed to power conversion, Marsh will remain a very good depth player who can contain and threaten the edge when the primary edge rusher takes a break on the sideline.

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Pita Taumoepenu was the first LEO/SAM body type added to the roster under Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. Taumoepenu was drafted to compete at LEO, but it was apparent that he needed a year to improve his strength and technique. He fits the size and athleticism profile of other LEOs playing for Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Seattle. Taumoepenu explodes off the line at the snap of the ball, but his handwork was erratic and unproductive. He must become more nuanced before he could threaten another player's spot in the rotation at SAM or LEO. It should be viewed as a good sign that the team is reportedly high enough on Taumoepenu that they will allow him to compete at both SAM and LEO this offseason.

Jimmie Gilbert was added shortly after the draft ended, and it was fully expected that the lightning-quick pass rusher would need a year to add muscle and strength to his athletic frame. We haven't seen enough from Gilbert as a 49er to know if he will work at SAM, LEO, or both.

Free Agency: Cassius Marsh was re-signed prior to the start of free agency.

Jeremiah Attaochu is an athletic LEO who has been surprisingly unproductive thus far in his young career. He had six sacks in his second season with the Chargers, but he failed to build on those numbers in the following two seasons, falling deeper down the depth chart behind Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Like Harold, Attaochu seems to be a frustrating contrast between talent and skill. In reviewing his play, I can distinguish one pass rushing move that he has. Edge rushers can find limited success with only one move, provided that the move is good. His one move is not good. Attaochu extends a long arm (AKA: stab) into the chest plate of the tackle while trying to run the arc around him. Typically, the long arm is used to gain a leverage advantage when bull rushing by forcing the tackle's shoulder backward, contorting his body while compromising his balance and positioning. Using the long arm as an axis of rotation to run around actually extends the corner Attaochu is trying to run around. It's bad physics. It's a bad move. That he was able to collect six sacks in 2015 with this move is a testament to his athleticism and effort, but he needs to add effective moves to his lexicon to provide quick, consistent pressure. I did see him get one sack with a standard dip and bend around the tackle, so there should be some degree of hope that he'll develop his rushing skill under the guidance of Chris Kiffin, the new pass rushing specialist on the 49ers' coaching staff.

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Draft Options: Draft reports have stated that this is a poor draft for edge rushers. That is probably true if you are looking for classic 6'4"-6'6" defensive ends who tip the scales between 260 and 275 pounds. In fact, Bradley Chubb is the only one of those archetypical ends that I would expect to be a legitimate playmaker in the NFL from this draft. Fortunately, the 49ers aren't in dire need of that body type. This draft class has several promising LEO/SAM types, ranging from Harold Landry and Marcus Davenport on day one to Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Uchenna Nwosu, Lorenzo Carter, Josh Sweat, and Duke Ejiofor on day two, all the way to Kemoko Turay and Kentavius Street on day three.


Need: The 49ers were poor in pass coverage outside of the numbers last season. I'm being nice. The defensive backs had to cover too long, due to a consistently meager edge rush, but they often dropped coverage quickly enough to lose on timing routes outside of the numbers. While Ahkello Witherspoon's development was encouraging, the team ended the season desperate for a dependable cover corner on the other side of the defense.

Roster: Ahkello Witherspoon entered the draft with questions about his commitment to football and his contact courage. He answered both sets of questions convincingly once he got playing time. With his length, precise hand placement, and remarkably quick feet (which he credits to playing soccer), Witherspoon excels in man coverage. His intelligence and instincts allow him to thrive in zone coverage. He also employed a previously unseen sense of urgency in rallying to contact in run support and in limiting yards after the catch. In Witherspoon, the 49ers have a promising starting corner with ample room to improve.

K'Waun Williams played well enough as the nickel cornerback to be granted a contract extension before the season ended. As the fifth defensive back on the field, he doesn't play in the base defense, but he enters in sub packages to defend shifty slot receivers with the space to cut in or out against him. Williams is not a special athlete as a cornerback, but he plays smart and disciplined, and has earned the confidence of DB coach Jeff Hafley, who also coached Williams in Cleveland. He is a steady contributor in what could easily be considered the most difficult coverage spot in the defense, but a superior athlete with similar instincts could improve the position.

Jimmie Ward has played outside cornerback, nickel cornerback, and free safety in his time with the 49ers. He is the athletic archetype of a free safety in Saleh's defense, but he has suffered three fractures since entering the league, and the high-impact collisions that are paramount to the safety position may ask too much for his apparently brittle frame over the course of a sixteen-game season. While Ward is not as tall or long as typical outside cornerbacks in this scheme, he is tremendously agile and instinctive outside, and his physicality as a safety makes him a dominant run supporter from the cornerback position. He has natural hands, and the 49ers cover three scheme would allow him frequent opportunities to react to developing pass plays from depth, as he would have as a safety. Ward will get a chance to compete for a starting role at outside cornerback, though it is likely that he could also displace Williams at nickel corner.

Greg Mabin is a young, developing corner that the 49ers believe in. He was called up from the practice squad in November, and he played sparingly for six games. Mabin will compete for a roster spot in 2018.

Free Agency: Most 4-3 under teams primarily employ some form of 3-deep coverage. Most teams that play cover three want to sign a cornerback like Richard Sherman. The 49ers didn't sign a cornerback like Richard Sherman. The 49ers signed Richard Sherman. Sherman immediately becomes the vocal leader of the defensive backfield (and possibly the entire defense). Sherman's tireless film study will serve as a perfect example for the young corners on the defense, his constant competitive drive will push his peers to commit greater effort to practices and games, and his nonstop mouth will increase the intensity at practice. His recovery timetable will allow Jimmie Ward an opportunity to compete for a spot at outside corner, but there is little chance that a healthy Sherman fails to start at one of the corner spots. While his average lateral agility has occasionally been beaten by quicker receivers, Sherman plays the fade as well as anyone in football. His height allows him to stick to a receiver's hip, and he uses his positioning and awareness to take away the back shoulder fade while using his length to take away the front shoulder fade.

Draft Options: This draft is tremendously deep at corner including promising prospects such as Denzel Ward, Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, Isaiah Oliver, Carlton Davis, Mike Hughes, Anthony Averett, Quentin Meeks, Tony Brown, Kevin Tolliver II, Darius Phillips, and Siran Neal. Though Alexander is my favorite of the bunch, he's expected to be joined on day one by Ward and Jackson. Phillips and Neal should be available on day three.


Need: The 49ers want speed in the middle of their defense. With the secondary typically dropping three defensive backs into deep zones, the linebackers need to cover a lot of ground to protect the intermediate zones. The MIKE backer also needs to be a run-stuffing tackling machine between the tackles, playing with the power to stack and shed OL blocks, the speed to beat the blockers to the point of attack, or both. The WILL backer focuses on pass coverage, needing to blanket tight ends and running backs in space. They also need the toughness to stick their nose into the B gap, depending on the defense that is called. With the 49ers' focus on speed, linebackers should also be able to track down wide run plays outside the numbers.

Roster: Reuben Foster is an ideal fit at both spots, as he consistently reads plays fast enough to explode through the line before OL can engage him, taking down running backs before a play can develop. Additionally, he ranges sideline to sideline, delivering crowd-pleasing punishment on swing routes and screen passes. It is unknown how many games Foster could miss this season due to off-field discipline.

Malcolm Smith is a great fit at WILL in this scheme. He possesses impressive athleticism, and he has a knack for being in the right place in pass coverage, as anyone who remembers the 2013 NFC Championship Game could attest (too soon?). The 49ers were thrilled with his performance in training camp, and Robert Saleh reportedly was tremendously disappointed when Smith went down with a torn pectoral muscle prior to the start of the season. Smith was a poor fit in Jack Del Rio's scheme in Oakland, but his responsibilities in Saleh's scheme would return him to the same position he excelled in with Seattle. Smith could combine with Foster to provide the 49ers with the fastest pair of inside linebackers in the league.

Brock Coyle is a steady contributor on special teams and ideal depth at MIKE. He plays tough and smart, and he generally does a good job of playing in position. He occasionally appears to guess wrong, overlapping a teammate's gap and exposing the defense to long runs, but he's as good of a backup linebacker the team has had since Chris Borland sat behind Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman.

Elijah Lee is an athletic WILL who the 49ers are fond of. He looked hesitant in his game action last year, but the 49ers seem willing to bet that his processing speed will improve with repetitions.

Free Agency: The team avoided some pricier, more-established options in free agency. Instead, they chose to re-sign Coyle. This move rewards Coyle for hard work and tough play on defense and special teams, but it would also appear to be a vote of confidence that Reuben Foster's punishment for a turbulent offseason will not be severe enough to require the acquisition of a new starter.

Draft Options: There are several exciting options at ILB in the 2018 draft. As many as four (FOUR!) inside linebackers could be selected in the first round: Roquan Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Tremaine Edmunds, and Rashaan Evans. Malik Jefferson, Genard Avery, and Josey Jewell could go in rounds two and three, while Micah Kiser, Tegray Scales, Oren Burks, Fred Warner, Christian Sam, Skai Moore, and Jack Cichy should be available on day three.


Need: The 49ers may boast the league's most athletic safety in Jaquiski Tartt, whose height, weight, speed, physicality, and agility may make him the most versatile safety in the league. Tartt played free safety in place of Jimmie Ward for part of 2017, and he displayed tremendous range and enough agility to provide one of the more eye-popping interceptions of the season. Tartt is even better at strong safety, using his acceleration to arrive unexpectedly quick and violently at the point of attack. The 49ers thought enough of Tartt to let Eric Reid, a Pro Bowl starter, walk in free agency.

In six starts, Adrian Colbert displayed enough range, instincts, and knack for separating receivers from footballs to presumably take over the starting free safety position from the oft-injured incumbent, Jimmie Ward. Colbert almost collected one interception, but the ball bounced off of the cast he was wearing over his broken thumb. The 49ers should be set at starting safety, but the depth at safety is uncertain, with Jimmie Ward potentially playing three different positions.

Roster: Jimmie Ward was already discussed in the cornerback section, but he belongs in the safety section because he could start at free safety in this scheme. If he is not the starter, he can provide depth at both safety spots, which could be complicated if he is starting at one of the cornerback spots.

Chanceller James boasts similar size and speed to Jaquiski Tartt, but he isn't quite the same athlete. James would only provide depth at strong safety, but he was impressive at the spot in the preseason before suffering a torn ACL. He should be back healthy for camp and ready to compete for a roster spot.

Free Agency: N/A

Draft Options: As with cornerback, this draft is DEEP with safety talent. Without knowing exactly how the team feels about James as a player, or whether the team perceives Ward as more of a cornerback, I would expect the 49ers acquire a safety during, or immediately following the draft. Blue chippers Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick will go on day one. Justin Reid, Quinn Blanding, Ronnie Harrison, DeShon Elliot, Dorian O'Daniel, Jordan Whitehead, Godwin Igwebuike, Terrell Edmunds will be available later.
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.


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