Reuben Foster and Solomon Thomas will breathe new life into the Bay Area Defense
Ranked dead last in total defense last season, it’s safe to say San Francisco has nowhere to go but up. The defense gave up the most yards and most points out of any unit in the league. Hard to imagine considering the amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball.
The talent of the defenders on this team just got better over the offseason. A combination of high draft picks and veteran production will help the 49ers rise from the rock bottom ashes of the NFL.
The 49ers have been mining the NFL Draft for defensive talent for years. They’ve spent multiple high draft picks of defensive talent with hopes of returning to prominence. After last season, prominence may be too far out of reach. This team is trying to reestablish relevance.
It’s hard to believe that just 5 years ago, San Francisco was representing the NFC in Super Bowl. 4 years ago, they were positioned for back-to-back appearances in the NFL’s biggest game – but lost to division nemesis in the Seattle Seahawks.
Head Coach Jim Harbaugh – the captain of the ship – set sail for Michigan after the 2014 season following issues with the 49ers brass. It’s been a dark time for Niner-nation since the khaki wearing heartbeat of the team left the sidelines.
The Fall From Grace Continues
After losing defensive cornerstone Patrick Willis, a premature retirement of 2014 3rd round LB Chris Borland, and several other departures like veteran Justin Smith, the defense that once evoked fear seemed to crumble before our very eyes.
Returning players struggled to replicate the success of the previous years, such as Navarro Bowman who has struggled with injuries. The leader of the linebacker core missed all the 2014 season after having not missed a game since entering the league. Bowman also went down last season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon against the Dallas Cowboys.
The Chip Kelly experiment was finished before it ever started. The coach lasted just one season before being canned – along with GM Trent Baalke – as the front office figured they would include him in the overhaul of the team.
The talent on the team would not be ruined due to not have solid leaders in place.
Rebuild In Progress
Despite the cluster that has been the 49ers front office, they did manage to replenish the defensive side of the ball with high draft picks.
In 2013, San Francisco used their top two selections on defensive players. Safety Eric Reid out of LSU was selected with the 18th overall pick. The 2nd round pick was used to take Cornelius Carradine, DE Florida State. Both continue to remain productive members of the defensive roster.
The 49ers invested 4 of their 2014 draft picks on defensive backs. They selected safety Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois with the 30th overall pick.
Of the three other cornerbacks selected – Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker – only Johnson and Reaser remain on the team as it stands right now.
They would also add veteran Safety Antoine Bethea during the offseason.
Draft Life After Harbaugh
The 2015 draft would mark the third consecutive draft San Francisco would use a high pick on a safety. Following the 1st round selection of Oregon DE Arik Armstead, the Niners chose Samford Safety Jaquiski Tartt with the 46th overall pick.
You can never have enough safeties, right? They also added DE Eli Harold with the 79th overall pick. The three defenders chosen in the top 100 remain on the team and are productive.
San Francisco would spend their 1st round selection of 2016 on another Oregon Duck. DE DeForest Buckner was brought on to intensify the pass rush with former teammate Armstead.
The two DE would hopefully erase the bittersweet memory that was Aldon Smith. The 49ers would choose a pair of cornerbacks with their 3rd and 4th round selections in Will Redmond (Mississippi State) and Rashard Robinson (LSU).
The Lynch-Shanahan Era
In the 2016 NFL Draft – the 49ers may have hit the jackpot. Somehow – someway – San Francisco hoodwinked the Chicago Bears into trading up one spot. They used the draft haul to select two potential Pro Bowl defensive studs to their roster. DT Solomon Thomas – whose game resembles that of Aaron Donald, in my opinion – was taken 3rd overall.
Thumping LB Reuben Foster – whose draft stock fluctuated throughout the draft process – was snagged at the end of the 1st round. Projected as a top 5 player, the Roll Tide stud found a home in San Francisco. He’s looking to make 29 other NFL teams pay for passing on him. With the level of violence Foster plays with, he did not need a chip on his shoulder or extra motivation. All that did was turn a dangerous player into a deadly force.
Add Ahkello Witherspoon – cornerback out of Colorado – to a list of defensive players selected by the Niners near the top half of the NFL Draft. Witherspoon has the size and speed to help the secondary improve. Having been a multisport athlete contributes to his quick feet that enable him to recover quickly. Unlike teammate Chidobe Awuzi, Witherspoon wasn’t known for his unhinged and decisive in making tackles. Hesitancy is something I believe guys like Foster can help Witherspoon overcome.
Rise of the Phoenix
This offseason, the 49ers parted ways with last year’s defensive leader in veteran Antoine Bethea. He led the team in total tackles last season. Bethea signed with division rival Cardinals and looks to mentor their young defensive unit. LB Gerald Hodges also left the team to circle the wagons in Buffalo. Hodges led the team in interceptions last season.
Former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith was added to the team following his two most statistically productive years during his tenure as an Oakland Raider. Smith brings championship experience, veteran leadership, and blue-collar work ethic after busting his tail to prove being drafted in the 7th round was far too low.
The Niners offseason additions were mostly on the offensive side of the ball. The offensive unit is an area I believe John Lynch will focus on improving over the next few drafts.
Head Coach Kyle Shanahan looks to familiarity to help with offensive production. Offensive veterans additions QB Brian Hoyer and WR Pierre Garcon are educated on the style of offense Shanahan runs having prior experience with the coach.
The linebackers will be solid. The defensive line will get to the quarterback. The secondary needs to improve, but will benefit from linebacker/defensive line play. The biggest question mark will be the offensive production. Poor offensive production means more time the defensive unit is on the field. Conditioning has to be a key focus heading into training camp as the defense should expect to be on the field more often than not.
Although the offense is far from fixed, the defense – on paper – has the potential to restore prestige to a once highly respectable unit. Reuben Foster will lead the Ministry of Violence – that’s what I’m calling this defense – and in near future, the Phoenix will rise in the Bay Area.