SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As one could expect, the San Francisco 49ers using the second pick in the NFL draft on defensive end Nick Bosa came with all the usual platitudes. Yes, he was viewed as one of the best players in the draft. Indeed, they viewed him as a good fit in their locker room. Of course, they expect him to be a foundational piece for the short- and long-term future.
But selecting Bosa less than two months after trading for and signing Dee Ford is about much more than simply drafting the player the Niners coveted most. It’s about forging a defensive identity.
Three years and just 10 wins into the regime of coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, the 49ers seem to finally know who they want to be opposite Shanahan’s high-octane, matchup driven offense. And it’s all about getting after the quarterback.
“A pass rush hides a lot of things just like a quarterback can hide a lot of things,” Shanahan said. “And that’s where it all starts. If you don’t have that pass rush, I don’t care what corners you go get. No one can cover forever and you can have guys who can get a lot of interceptions, but if the quarterback has forever to throw, it really doesn’t matter.”
Since Aldon Smith’s departure in 2014, the 49ers haven’t had a pass rush that has been capable of masking much of anything consistently. In pairing Smith with Justin Smith, the 49ers’ pass rush took off. Aldon Smith collected 42 sacks in his first 43 games and Justin Smith served as the strong, powerful complement.
With that dominant pass rush leading the charge, the Niners’ defense took off and became one of the most dominant groups in the league.
At the NFL owners meetings in March, Shanahan mentioned the Smiths as a template for how a pass rush can be built and how integral it can be to closing out games. That belief has served as the foundation for the Niners’ entire offseason plan and why bolstering the defensive line alongside tackle DeForest Buckner has been a constant refrain from the Niners’ top decision-makers.
After mostly striking out in that area the past two offseasons, the Niners believe they finally hit it big this offseason by landing Ford, who will be the speed rusher playing the “Leo” defensive end spot, and Bosa, who will be the powerful complement manning the “big” end spot.
“It’s unbelievable,” Nick Bosa said. “Just to be on a team that really shouldn’t have been this high in the draft with all the talent that they have, and then they add Dee Ford, which just makes this D-line pretty scary, yeah just having, it’s pretty impossible to double team any of us because then you’re single-teaming one of us. It’s going to be fun.”
Though Thomas and Armstead have spent most of their time with the Niners bouncing from position to position, the Niners now have some clarity on where certain players will play from down to down. Ford, Bosa and Buckner have defined positions, with Armstead and Thomas capable of playing outside on run downs and inside in sub-packages. Armstead could also get more work at nose tackle next to Buckner, along with D.J. Jones.
“I think it always gets confusing to people on how to use them and where to use them and where to use them best,” Shanahan said. “I think this makes it a lot easier. We’ve had some guys with some versatility, but you always want to put guys in the spot that they’re kind of born to do. You have guys like Armstead and Solly, who can rush outside, who are really good at playing the run outside. But they’re the best at rushing the passer from the inside, just like Buckner is. Now we got two guys in particular who excel at rushing the edge, Dee Ford and Bosa. It allows you to use the versatility a little bit better and put guys truly where they’re at their best.”
The Niners hope that group will be able to close out some of the close games that have gotten away from them the past two seasons. San Francisco has lost 11 one-possession games in the past two seasons, leaving it to wonder how things might have been different with outside rushers capable of coming up with the sack or forced fumble to help turn those defeats into victories.
Since Aldon Smith’s departure, the only Niner to reach double-digit sacks was Buckner, who had 12 last season. No outside rusher has had more sacks than the 6.5 Ahmad Brooks posted in 2015.
If all goes according to plan, the Niners will get more than that from each of Bosa, Ford and Buckner.
“As a coach, the hardest thing to handle is going against a tough D-line and that’s been our goal since we got here to try to build it that way,” Shanahan said. “We had some good players to start with. We’ve added some players since we got here and you always try to take the best guys available and we have had a lot of guys who are good players who are very similar and the two guys we have added to the D-line this year were kind of the two things that we were missing. So we needed to get better in that area and I think what we already have, it will make those guys much better so I think we’ve got a chance to be difference-makers on the defensive line and that will add to our linebackers, that will add to our secondary and make our whole team better.”