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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

49ers’ Defensive Line Creates Tough Decisions for John Lynch

Mar 19, 2019 at 3:16 PM

Popular opinion has been that the 49ers are going to select Nick Bosa with the #2 pick in the draft, if he is available. Bosa is the consensus choice as the best edge rusher coming out of college, something that is tough to argue. Some believe that the 49ers will actually select Quinnen Williams, the defensive tackle out of Alabama, seeing him as possibly someone to pair with DeForest Buckner and the newly signed Dee Ford, and maybe adding Justin Houston, to create a front four that is all but unblockable. Both of these points of view are wonderful to consider, particularly since 49er fans have been starved for a good pass rush for several years, and the thought of seeing Russell Wilson and Jared Goff being swarmed over repeatedly is almost enough to bring tears to the eyes.

Both of these options, however, bring serious questions and significant problems to the team.

Every 49er fan knows that the team has invested numerous high draft picks in their defensive front. Arik Armstead was a first-round pick (Number 17 overall) in 2015. Buckner was drafted 7th overall in 2016, and Solomon Thomas third overall in 2017. They drafted Kentavius Street last year in the 4th round, where he was available only because he had torn an ACL during a pre-draft workout with the Giants; otherwise, he would have been considered by a number of teams in the first two rounds as well. The Niners allowed him last season to rehab the knee, eyeing a healthy return in 2019 and a hopefully significant contribution to the defense going forward. That's three first-round picks and a fourth with arguably first-round talent. They traded for Ford last week, giving them another player drafted early (23rd overall) in the rotation.

Ford was picked up to play the LEO (weak-side defensive end) position. Buckner is the strong-side defensive tackle, or the 3, lining up somewhere between over the guard to outside shade on the tackle, depending on the defensive front called. Armstead has been playing the big end position, lining up on the tight end. If the 49ers drafted Bosa, Armstead would likely give up the big end slot to him. While this would bring an assumed improvement in the pass rush, Bosa is nowhere near as large as Armstead, meaning that he would likely struggle against the run, particularly with the much larger, stronger and more skilled tackles that he will face in the NFL. Ford is already a concern against the run, because he is actually a linebacker who will be playing end. Drafting Bosa would also mean that Solomon Thomas would rarely see the field at all – unless he and Armstead were shifted to the second defensive tackle position, which was manned by Earl Mitchell last year and looks to be D.J. Jones' spot in 2019. Why not just put them in for Jones, you ask? Because that position, the 1, is an absolutely glory-free position manned by an incredibly strong and sturdy player who can take on double teams regularly, sink his hips and clog up the middle of the line, occupying blockers to allow the linebackers to run free and make plays. Armstead is too tall to play that position, and Thomas is simply too light, weighing some 35 or 40 pounds less than Jones. Drafting Bosa would both weaken the edges of their run defense and force the 49ers to either play Armstead out of position or formulate some sort of line rotation where highly-paid players would become situational. That is a huge waste of money, and could well result in resentment and problems among the players over perceived lack of playing time. I have not even mentioned Street, Jullian Taylor or Ronald Blair here. There are too many bodies, too many good players, on the defensive line.

Let's look at the situation if Quinnen Williams is the selection. Armstead and Thomas could remain at the strong-side end position, with Buckner at the 3 and Ford at the LEO, with Williams being relegated to the 1. That is not his game. He is quick and explosive, a larger (and as yet unproven) version of Aaron Donald. Donald cannot play the 1, as he is too small, and Williams would face the same problem based upon his playing style. He is not a guy you want to relegate to eating up double teams like Tony Siragusa and creating a pile in the middle of the field. That would be an utter waste of his skills, would frustrate him and would infuriate the fan base, who would expect him to wreak havoc in the backfield. Because the mike linebacker, Fred Warner, is quite undersized, they could not go to a straight 4-3 defense and let Warner take on a guard or the center on every running play. He would get washed out regularly by men outweighing him by 75 pounds. The defense is designed to have one tackle play the blocker-gobbling role, and the team needs a player, or players, who can do this. Williams would be a truly bad pick for this purpose, given the defensive scheme and roster make-up.

So what does this leave? Honestly, and I cannot believe that I am writing this, because I LOVE Bosa, the team should try to trade down to get two picks (hello, Giants, hello, Raiders), take an edge linebacker who can cover as well, and slide him into the strong-side 'backer position currently manned by the tandem of Malcolm Smith and Mark Nzeocha. They could use the second pick on a free safety, a guard, a wide receiver, a corner, or some other position of need, and would still have a very high second-round pick to fill another hole. If they have to stand pat, I think they should draft Josh Allen, as he fills the above role. He is a linebacker, can rush the passer quite well, and can cover. He could even move to defensive end in nickel situations to rush the passer.

There are other options, of course. Trading Armstead would free up the spot for Bosa, and Thomas could become a situational interior rusher at the 1 spot. Trading Thomas would let Armstead rotate in with Bosa and Ford, particularly in run downs, and he might be able to rush from inside on obvious passing downs. Neither Armstead nor Thomas would likely bring much in return, however, because of their perceived lack of production and high price tags. John Lynch also likes both players, and believes that they will be contributors. I agree.

The reality is, I would bet that the Niners sit tight and take Bosa. He is the safest pick for sure. They obviously think highly of him, and with good reason. I just wonder how they are going to deal with the incredible glut of players that will be demanding playing time as the season progresses.
  • Written by:
    Matt Mani is a lifelong Bay Area resident, having benefitted from attending every Niner home game from 1973 to 1998. Along the way, he developed a deep love of the game and for the team. He is a practicing attorney in Marin County and, aside from pulling hard for the Niners, Warriors and GIants, writes in his spare time. He is father to three sons who all bleed red and gold. He somehow convinced the editors at 49ers Webzone to give him a chance to prove himself as a content provider, which has fulfilled one of his life's dreams.
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.


  • hiram
    lol agree ford and bosa would not work like ingram and joey bosa don't work in los angles
    Mar 20, 2019 at 8:06 AM
  • Daniners
    My god, stop overthinking this. First, you are not an expert and most of your assumptions are probably wrong. They will take one of two players, Bosa or Williams. Why? Because either onemake them their Dline significantly better. They will figure out how to best use them and trade who they need to trade. No one loses face. You take the best player available at the point in the draft. You don’t draft for need at 2. If you do, you risk losing the next Joey Bosa or Aaron Donald. That’s how you lose your job. Allen is not remotely in the same class if either you Bosa or Q. Two are game changers, he is not. He’s good.
    Mar 19, 2019 at 11:16 PM
  • JonnyJ
    I wouldn't get hung up on the writers limited understanding of a basic 4-3 defense. Coaches can change and alter their defense to fit the players strengths. So to sit there and think every player has to fit in this labeled box because Madden football told you so, is incredibly small minded.
    Mar 19, 2019 at 10:32 PM
  • wutwhat
    That's BS. I hate when ppl try to talk scheme and dont know what they talking about. We dont need a Nose Tackle for Christsake, Jyst a 1 tech who 2 gaps. Theres a difference. Q. William's can do that, but is a ideal 3 tech. The guy is better than Buckner. And The 3 tech in this defense doesnt line up on the strong side. 4-3 under elements, Hes on the weak side dude. What these clowns arent realizing is William's can rush from the edge on 3rd down too. I'm so sick of drafting DL in the first round but Williams is alot better than anybody. Bosa is soft, just like his brother.
    Mar 19, 2019 at 10:12 PM
  • JRSanDiego
    Great article - like that you don't just give opinion, you give rationale. thank you. The only way an organization makes progress is when they leave their mistakes behind quickly (NE). With a new DL coach, maybe they will be doing that with Armstead and Thomas (or maybe new coach plays them a better way?) Either way, I think there is talent in the back-ups Blair, Street, and Taylor that is just fine to replace high priced players even if there is a minor reduction in performance. Bosa - he makes me nervous - he strikes me as stiff and possibly injury prone - which only gets worse taking on bigger faster NFL Olinemen. I worry that we take him just because he would be a safe, "no blame later" pick. Plus, what if he holds out like his brother?? Allen - He does remind me of Aldon with his burst, flexibility, and length. I like that he solves rusher, DE, and linebacker issues with one pick. Williams - it's intriguing to have Williams and Buckner paired, but you seem to know better than me that he isn't a scheme fit for the 49ers.
    Mar 19, 2019 at 6:28 PM
  • Chris
    Maybe i’m wrong and the niners already have a trade partner for Armstead or Thomas and will trade em once they get Williams ala Trent Brown and McGlinchey last year. Btw, love this site! I don’t agree with every article/opinion but at least y’all provide good information for your reasoning. Keep it up! Red and bold til i’m dead and cold!
    Mar 19, 2019 at 5:38 PM
  • Chris
    Why would Bosa play the big end? He would be the SAM with Armstead and Thomas rotating at the big end. Armstead/Thomas slide in at DT and Bosa at DE in nickel. We’re in nickel 65-70% with too many DT’s. If they had let Armstead go, Williams makes more sense but no one is trading for an average DT making $9 million on a 1yr contract. If they pick Williams, they are admitting to two huge mistakes, picking Thomas at 3rd overall and the 5th yr option to Armstead. I prefer Bosa but even Allen makes more sense than Williams. They are only trading back if Bosa is gone.
    Mar 19, 2019 at 5:25 PM
  • mbniner
    I think that Thomas should be unloaded no matter what scenario plays out, he is simply too small and is easily eaten up by OL. I like picking Allen or, as you noted, signing Houston and drafting Q. Williams. That's a great pass rushing DL with good backups (you forgot to mention Day).
    Mar 19, 2019 at 4:45 PM
  • Antoine Gray
    I couldn't agree more. I recently said the same thing on Niners Nation. Allen fills a position of need, is an elite speed rusher and better than percieved coverage linebacker. He's Aldon Smith, minus the drinking problem and much better in coverage. Most people won't like it, but it would be a great pickup.
    Mar 19, 2019 at 4:42 PM

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