Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports


Have the 49ers done enough to address the pass rush?

Al Sacco
May 10, 2018 at 9:32 AM2


It's hard to argue with the approach the San Francisco 49ers have taken during their most recent rebuild. After all, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan took over a roster that was largely devoid of talent in 2017, and turned it into a playoff contender in just a little over a year. In doing so, they've put their stamp on the team, and added exciting playmakers on both sides of the ball via the draft and free agency. So while it's easy to get excited about what's been done and where this team is headed, there's still one glaring need that could derail the Niners' plans to be playing football in late January, and that's the pass rush.

Getting to the quarterback isn't a new issue for this franchise, as it's one that's plagued it for the last five years. In fact, the 49ers are the only team in the NFL to not have a single player reach at least nine sacks in a season during that span, and no one's even gotten to seven since 2013. It's been especially bad since former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio left, as the Niners have finished 29th, 21st, and 27th overall in total sacks in the three subsequent seasons following his departure.

When looking at the current roster, the frustrating part in all of this is that San Francisco is probably only one edge rusher away from seeing its sack totals skyrocket. Per Pro Football Focus, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner led the NFL with 19 quarterback hits last year, although he only managed three sacks. His life would be made easier if San Francisco featured someone defenses had to worry about on the outside, and Buckner's numbers would obviously improve. The team tried to force rookie Solomon Thomas into that role, but he's better suited to rush from the inside on passing downs. As far as Arik Armstead, the former first-round pick is more effective than he gets credit for, but needs to stay on the field. Before breaking his hand in Week 6 last season, Armstead was actually second on the team with 15 QB pressures. The issue is he's missed 18 of the last 32 games and, like Buckner, hasn't been able to finish the job with any regularity. Armstead has six sacks in 30 career games.

So with bringing down the quarterback being the issue that it is, most thought that making a major upgrade in that area would have been one of the top priorities this offseason, but it hasn't worked out that way. Actually, it almost seems like the Niners have kind of ignored the issue altogether. First, the Niners parted ways with Elvis Dumervil, who led the team in sacks in 2017. To help replace him, they brought in Jeremiah Attaochu on a one-year deal in free agency, but that move seems to be about catching lightning in a bottle more than anything else. Attaochu has talent, but his time with the Los Angeles Chargers was plagued by injuries, and he only has 10 total sacks during his four-year career. Cassius Marsh, who played well in six games after being claimed off waivers late last year, was re-signed, but like Attaochu he doesn't have much of a track record. Marsh has six sacks in four NFL seasons.

With Attaochu being the only new addition, it seemed as if the decision makers had their sights set on the draft to find that missing piece, but as the picks went on it became more and more apparent that Lynch and company weren't enamored with any of the options that were in front of them. Round after round the Niners passed on edge players until the draft finally concluded without the team selecting even one. When asked why, the brain trust seemed confident that the players it currently has were better options.

"We have some pretty good players," Shanahan said. "Yeah, we'd love to add whoever the best pass-rusher is on the outside in the draft. We'd love to get a Von Miller, but you only get eight up on game day and you only get nine on our roster. So, you just keep drafting rushers. You've got to be pretty good to beat out Marsh. You've got to be pretty good to beat out Armstead.

"You don't just get guys. If you get them, someone else has got to get cut, and we've got a pretty good group."

Now, if the 49ers didn't feel like there was an upgrade to be had, they're entitled to that. This regime has done an excellent job finding players and it has earned the benefit of the doubt. But using Marsh and Armstead as examples is a tough sell. Again, neither player has the body of work to back up that claim.

So barring any late trades or last minute additions, the 49ers will look to get pressure off the edge from a group that includes Armstead, Attaochu, Marsh, Ronald Blair, Eli Harold and the developing Pita Taumoepenu. Out of those six, only Attaochu has had more than three sacks in a season (six in 2015). Could there be a breakout player or two in that group? Absolutely, but it's always dangerous to bank on results from players who haven't shown they can provide them consistently.

The other train of thought here is maybe the 49ers still think they're a year away, and are hoping Jimmy Garoppolo and the offense can do enough to win games in the interim. Lynch and Shanahan did sign six-year deals, and from their perspectives they may see no reason to jump for an edge player they aren't crazy about now, knowing the opportunity to address the need will present itself eventually. In the meantime, San Francisco will have to hope that some of the previously mentioned players can reach their potential, or guys like Buckner and Thomas take big enough jumps (and earn enough of the opposing offense's attention) that it opens the door for the edge guys to make more plays.

Al Sacco is the Senior Writer for 49ers Webzone and has had his work used by national outlets such as ESPN and USA TODAY. In addition to his writing duties, Al is also the co-host of the No Huddle podcast. If you'd like to reach Al with a media request, please contact him via Twitter @AlSacco49 or at [email protected].
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.


2 Comments

  • DRL
    I will keep repeating this, probably for years: the 49ers didn't have the guts to make the necessary move. This season is not going to be a Super Bowl run, and the 49ers possessed the 9th pick in the draft. They should have traded up with Cleveland to the 4th pick and taken Bradley Chubb. Yes, it would have been expensive, but the cost to get a talent like him will only increase. Where are they going to draft next year? 15? 18? 20? 23? Elite pass rushers don't get released as FA's, and they're off the board within the first 5-10 picks. Do the 49ers suppose that they're just going to get lucky and find another Charles Haley in the 4th round? This is a multi-year rebuild and they should have bitten the bullet and made the sacrifice in this year's draft. The Eagles and Rams had no problem spending the draft picks to get their elite QB's, and it paid off. The 49ers blew it!
    May 15, 2018 at 6:37 PM
    2
  • Mt49erman
    This article is good for those who haven't a clue about football...waste of good space.
    May 11, 2018 at 6:26 AM
    0

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