SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Moments after playing in a real, meaningful football game for the first time in 359 days, San Francisco 49ers rookie defensive end Nick Bosa was already digging into the details.
For the better part of the past year, Bosa had been dealing with a variety of injuries, whether it was the core muscle issue that ended his college career, the hamstring strain that put him on the sideline in the spring or the high ankle sprain that cost him the preseason and most of training camp.
Now, finally, Bosa seems more at ease because he’s able to talk about something other than an injury diagnosis or its accompanying rehab. He was happily talking about the 49ers’ 31-17 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and his role in it.
“It’s just a different type of mindset rushing in the NFL compared to college,” Bosa said. “College, the ball is out. Pros, they might tuck it, like you just can’t assume that the play is over. You have to literally rush until you touch him every time.”
That Bosa was able to play was a testament to a tedious rehab process from the sprained right ankle he suffered Aug. 7. Bosa said he spent “every waking hour” working to recover in time for the opener.
The work paid off, as Bosa played 36 snaps (not counting penalties), finished with three tackles and dropped Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston for his first NFL sack. Along the way, Bosa had five wins in 19 pass rushes according to ESPN’s “pass rush win rate” statistic. That 26% success rate was second best among rookies and tied for 17th with Chicago’s Khalil Mack among all players through Sunday’s games.
“He definitely had an effect on the game, which is what we were hoping for,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He got in the backfield a lot … He had a number of times where he got free, which I thought were impressive. Jameis made some very impressive escapes from the pocket on a number of those, too, but I thought it was a good first game. Still a lot of areas to improve, but considering what he’s been going through here the last few weeks, I thought it was a success.”
Just having Bosa back on the field is a starting point. Most of the conversation about the No. 2 overall pick has centered on his injury history, with a sliver reserved for his pre-draft social media history and subsequent questions about how he’d fit in the locker room (questions that have been unfounded, according to teammates).
The Niners have repeatedly pushed back against the narrative Bosa is injury prone, but the only way to stop it is for Bosa to stay healthy for an entire season.
If Bosa is able to do that, the Niners believe that he can become every bit the superstar his brother Joey is for the Los Angeles Chargers. Fair or not, those are the expectations that come with his bloodlines and draft status.
There have been signs that the 49ers’ belief is rooted in reality. When Bosa was available to practice in the spring and summer, he jumped off the practice tape.
Veteran left tackle Joe Staley was impressed enough by Bosa that he spent extra time after training camp practices sharing tips and picking the rookie’s brain about his moves and technique.
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey sees similar potential and is quick to note as physically imposing as Bosa might be, it’s his polished pass-rush moves and mental game that set him apart. Even those who don’t spend much time blocking Bosa noticed.
“He basically missed like all of OTAs and he shows up on the first day of training camp, and he’s just like, a game-wrecker,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “And it wasn’t just like, one day, one play. He’s just so well-rounded, and just multifaceted. And he seems polished, which is just not normal to see that in a rookie.”
Of course, none of that is to say that Bosa is a finished product, even if that was a “knock” by some in the pre-draft process. Veterans like Staley and coaches like defensive coordinator Robert Saleh have gone out of their way to tamp down the expectations, with Staley going full Dennis Green in a training camp interview.
“I mean, super-talented dude,” Staley said. “He is just different. He’s really good. I’m not going to sit here and crown him, though. Not gonna crown him.”
While Bosa had a solid game against the Buccaneers, Winston also taught him an important lesson about finishing plays.
With 3:12 left in the first quarter, Bosa quickly knocked Tampa Bay left tackle Donovan Smith‘s hands away and beat him inside. As Bosa bore down on Winston, the veteran quarterback spun back seemingly into Bosa’s grasp before sidestepping him and firing a 16-yard completion to receiver Mike Evans.
Even after his first NFL win, Bosa was bothered by the missed opportunity and said he has to be more aggressive when he has a path to the quarterback, especially a bigger one like Winston.
“[I can’t] just be pitter pattering my feet like that,” Bosa said. “[I’ve got to] just go for whatever I see instead of hesitating. If I [go right at him], even if I don’t get him, I’ll make him either stumble or make him go a certain way so somebody else can get him. I kind of just broke down too much and let him get away.”
Those are the type of lessons that can be expected for every rookie, although not all would be quite so introspective about it just minutes after playing in their first game. And it’s reasonable to think the former Ohio State Buckeye will make correcting those mistakes a priority as he returns to Ohio this week to play the Cincinnati Bengals.
“We all know he’s talented,” Shanahan said. “You have to be to be the second pick in the draft, but being around him, you can see why he’s such a good football player. The guy is extremely smart, knows a lot about football, looks at it the right way, he’s not just always trying to win on ability. He’s trying to win on technique and discipline plus his ability. That’s why I think he always plays to his best and can always get better, too.”