There are essentially three overall functions an NFL defense needs in order to be successful; an ability to stop the run, an ability to stop the pass and an ability to stop the quarterback.
Arguably, the most important of these is to stop the quarterback, as evidenced by the Kansas City Chiefs. Despite their 31st ranked defense, they ended up an overtime away from a Super Bowl. Sure, the numbers tell you only one other team in the league is worse statistically; but just look at their strength, the position group they flex the hardest: the pass-rush. The Chiefs had the 1st overall quarterback pressure percentage in the league, showing the real key to having success on defense is a strong pass rush.
Where were the 49ers in pass rush productivity? 28th. To put it simply, the pass rush was MIA for most of the year, and it makes sense considering the front office decided not to address the position in the 2017 off-season (unless you count Jeremiah Attouchou….) and essentially didn’t address it the year before (Solomon Thomas was always considered an end on rushing downs and interior on passing downs, so he was never tasked definitively with taking out the quarterback).
It seems pretty straightforward what the 49ers need to do; address the pass rush position. That’s something that should be simple, as long as they avoid a couple things.
Don’t get cute and draft a “could be,” player, a player that “could be,” a good pass rusher. They’re picking number two overall and in prime position to take an “is,” a player that is a good pass rusher. Nick Bosa, Josh Allen, and Jachai Polite are my top three as it stands, things could change a bit three down, but Bosa and Allen have their feet cemented into the top two positions by analysts, scouts and writers alike. You’re in a position to grab either, grab one (fingers crossed for Bosa).
Don’t think trading down and grabbing Montez Sweat while having a couple more seconds and maybe third is going to be best for this organization. The most consistent problem has been lack of a pass rush, and if anybody hasn’t noticed, over the past 5 years, pass rushers drafted in the top 5, the likes of Kahlil Mack (5th overall), Dante Fowler Jr (3rd overall), Joey Bosa (3rd overall), Myles Garret (1st overall), Bradley Chubb (5th overall) have all turned into blue-chip pieces.
An argument could be made for the removal of Fowler, but he was crucial in the Rams win over the Saints in the NFC championship game, putting the vital pressure on Brees to force the interception in overtime. All of these players are game changers, but even more so, they are the all-encompassing “closers” Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have come to realize they always needed on the squad.
The other way to address this void is through free agency, and with a projected 69.2 million dollars to freely spend, the 49ers have no excuses to not pick up at least two productive edge rushers. Players like Jadaveon Clowney, Dee Ford, and Frank Clark had big years and will surely become franchise tagged or agree to deals with their respective teams.
Demarcus Lawrence, Brandon Graham, and Dante Fowler Jr. are on the fence in this situation; Lawrence already franchised the year before, Graham declaring he plans to test the free agent market and Fowler on a team strapped for cap space. However, all of their respective teams could still elect to franchise tag (again) or sign them to lengthy contract extensions.
The other guys are the older guys, veteran presences that could provide leadership and good productivity at a reasonable rate. Terrell Suggs, Julius Peppers, and Clay Matthews are all players that had productive years this year and have at one point or another put together pro bowl seasons and some hall of fame resumes. The 49ers should consider all options in a year flush with edge talent at every market.
This is the year the 49ers make the big, franchise-altering move for a premier edge rusher. The options are plenty, the stakes are high and there’s no looking back once they make their decision, which will come because the 49ers don’t have a choice anymore.