Every day leading up to the start of training camp, 49ers.com will assess roster groupings as we get closer to the season. In this installment of the 49ers positional breakdown, 49ers.com is addressing San Francisco's defensive line and assessing the recent changes to the unit.
What is the Defensive Line?
The defensive line is made up of three or four players who line up opposite of the offensive line. There are two defensive ends (DEs) on each edge of the line and one or two defensive tackles (DTs) on the inside of the line. The defensive line's job is to attack the quarterback and tackle ball carriers such as running backs coming through the line. Defensive ends could also be called edge rushers (EDGE) and a defensive tackle could also be called a nose tackle (NT).
Which Stats are Relevant to the Defensive Line?
- Tackles for loss
- Quarterback hits
- Passes defended
- Forced fumbles
- Fumble recoveries
The San Francisco 49ers defensive line will look slightly different heading into the 2022 season without three players who had a big impact on the team's defensive success last year: D.J. Jones (Denver Broncos), Arden Key (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Kentavius Street (New Orleans Saints). The trio finished last season with a combined 105 total stops, 21 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.
To help fill the void left by the departures of Jones, Key, and Street, San Francisco added draft capital by selecting Southern California's Drake Jackson with the 61st-overall pick, a starting-caliber defensive rookie the team hopes can help support the edge. The 49ers also picked up rookies Kevin Atkins and Kalia Davis alongside NFL veteran free agents Kemoko Turay, Hassan Ridgeway and Kerry Hyder Jr..
The 2022 season awaits comeback campaigns for Javon Kinlaw and Maurice Hurst who missed the majority of last season due to injuries. Kinlaw, who was hoped to put together a revived sophomore year, was limited to just four games before undergoing an ACL reconstruction surgery back in October. Since, general manager John Lynch revealed that Kinlaw has returned to the team facility and appears to be on track in his recovery.
"It's nice to see Javon walking around with a smile. He's not in pain anymore," Lynch said during the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine. "The plan is he could be back there in the offseason program, but we want to make sure that he is fully rehabbed. We don't want to rush this because he's so critical to our success. He's got such a high ceiling."
As for the 49ers D-line veterans, Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa look to continue where they left off last season. Bosa earned his second Pro Bowl nod in 2021 and San Francisco exercised the fifth-year contract option on the edge rusher for the 2023 season. Armstead notched a career-high 63 total tackles last season after moving to a primarily interior role on the defensive line. In fact, Pro Football Focus listed Armstead as an "Underrated Veteran" on their 2022 edge rusher rankings.
Despite the loss of a few defensive playmakers, San Francisco still boasts a deep and talented defensive line heading into training camp. Can the unit maintain their league-leading dominance despite the shakeup along the D-line?
- Arik Armstead (8th Season)
- Kevin Atkins (1st Season)
- Alex Barrett (2nd Season)
- Nick Bosa (4th Season)
- Kalia Davis (1st Season)
- Samson Ebukam (6th Season)
- Dee Ford (9th Season)
- Kevin Givens (3rd Season)
- Maurice Hurst (5th Season)
- Kerry Hyder Jr. (7th Season)
- Drake Jackson (1st Season)
- Javon Kinlaw (3rd Season)
- Charles Omenihu (4th Season)
- Hassan Ridgeway (7th Season)
- Kemoko Turay (5th Season)
- Jordan Willis (6th Season)
In his debut season, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans led a dominant unit. San Francisco ranked third in total defense while also being the only team in the NFL to finish top 10 in both rushing and passing defense, in large part due to the performance of the 49ers defensive line. Throughout the 2021 campaign, the 49ers leaned on their depth along the D-line.
In the team's journey to the 2021 playoffs, Armstead stepped up for his team when they needed him most. The 49ers lost Kinlaw to a season-ending knee injury early in the season, and relied on the team captain to help solidify the interior of the defensive line.
Armstead spent time playing off the edge and inside to open the season, averaging two tackles per game and recording only one sack through the 49ers first five games of the season. However, with a more-permanent move inside, Armstead averaged 4.4 tackles per game, 5.0 sacks, six tackles for loss and nine quarterback hits the ensuing 12 games of the regular season.
As a unit, San Francisco's defense finished the regular season first in the NFL in forced fumbles (22), third in yards allowed per game (310), fifth in sacks (48), sixth in yards allowed per play (5.11) and sixth in fumble recoveries (11).
Defensive Line Breakdown
Armstead's midseason move inside the defensive line helped cap off his high-performance 2021 season.
"It's awesome to see a guy like Arik step in and step up for our defense where we needed it the most," Ryans said. "He stepped up the biggest for us, and that's been the biggest turnaround in our defense, is the play of Arik Armstead inside."
Overall, Armstead supported the 49ers third-ranked defense with 56 total tackles and 6.0 sacks in the regular season. He was also a key factor in San Francisco's seventh-ranked rushing defense that limited 10 of the team's last 11 opponents to under 90 yards on the ground.
As an All-Mountain West honorable mention defensive lineman, Atkins started in all 13 games in 2021 recording 41 tackles (26 solo), 13 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks and added a team-best two fumble recoveries. Atkins earned the most tackles for loss in a season by a Bulldog interior defensive lineman since 2014. In May, Atkins agreed to terms with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent.
Originally entering the NFL with the Detroit Lions in 2017 as an undrafted free agent, Barrett went on to join the Alliance of American Football (AAF), a professional American football minor league, in 2018. The 49ers scouted Barrett from the AAF and signed him to their practice squad late in 2019.
In 2020, Barrett saw action in seven games recording two quarterback hits on 119 defensive snaps and played on the team's practice squad in 2021.
In Bosa's bounce-back season from a 2020 campaign that was cut short by a torn ACL, the edge rusher finished fourth in the NFL in total quarterback pressures (68), fourth in sacks (15.5), and eighth in quarterback pressure rate (14.7%).
Arguably having played better in 2021 than his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign in 2019, Bosa also notched 21 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and a pass defended. By the end of the 2021 season, Bosa was named to his second-career Pro Bowl.
Davis was the second of three sixth-round picks (220th overall) selected by the 49ers in this year's draft. In five years at Central Florida, Davis appeared in 28 games (14 starts) and registered 61 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, two passes defended, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Ebukam's performance grew exponentially in his first year with the 49ers. With only 11 pressures and 1.0 sack through the first 10 games, Ebukam shined over the team's final seven regular season games and three playoff contests.
The lineman recorded at least one pressure in each of the final 10 contests and his total skyrocketed to 34 in the second half of the year. Ebukam also notched 8.0 sacks during that span, including one in each postseason game.
Ford has appeared in a total of 18 regular-season games over the past three seasons, registering a total of 9.5 sacks for the 49ers.
The defensive lineman completed three sacks in the first six games of last season before going on Injured Reserve with a back injury.
Stepping in at nose tackle in 2020, Givens notched a career-best 19 tackles, five of which were for a loss, three quarterback hits, a fumble recovery and 1.0 sacks.
Last season, Givens notched 17 total tackles (one for a loss), two quarterback hits and one forced fumble.
Hurst joined the 49ers in 2021 after spending his first three seasons in the NFL with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Last season, the defensive lineman appeared in just two games and recorded 40 defensive snaps and two solo tackles before his season ended with an ankle and calf injury. Hurst will get a chance to make up for an injury-ridden 2021 campaign in the upcoming season.
Hyder Jr. originally entered the NFL after signing with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2014. Throughout his seven NFL seasons, Hyder Jr. has recorded 141 tackles, 28 tackles for a loss, 54 quarterback hits, 20 sacks and a pass defensed with the Detroit Lions (2015-18), Dallas Cowboys (2019), 49ers (2020) and Seattle Seahawks (2021). However, his best season was spent with San Francisco.
In 2020, Hyder Jr. led the team in sacks, recording a career-high 8.5 while registering 49 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, 18 quarterback hits and a fumble recovery.
Jackson was selected by the 49ers in the second round (61st overall) of this year's NFL Draft out of Southern California. He appeared in 28 games (26 starts) in three years (2019-21) and registered 103 tackles, 25.0 tackles for loss, four passes defended, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
In 2019 and 2021, Jackson earned Second-Team All-Pac-12 honors.
"He has really great ability and he just has to keep working," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said during OTAs. "He has the ability to get to the quarterback. And if he keeps working, keeps getting in there with (defensive line coach Kris) Kocurek and learning from Nick Bosa, learning from Arik Armstead, learning from Samson Ebukam, just diving in and really detailing out his job, Drake has a chance to be a really good player for us. The sky is the limit for him, he just has to keep working, keep improving daily."
Entering 2021, the No. 14 overall pick from the previous year's NFL Draft expected to make a massive leap in his sophomore campaign. However, injuries to his knee ultimately led to a season-ending surgery after just four games played.
"I see him every day working outside my window," head coach Kyle Shanahan said at the NFL Annual Meetings. "This is the healthiest I've seen him since he's been here. I really think he fixed some of the things that were issues and I'm as excited for him as anyone."
Originally entering the NFL with the Houston Texans as a fifth-round draft pick in 2019, Omenihu was eventually traded to the 49ers in November 2021. Throughout his time with the Texans, the lineman recorded 7.0 sacks and 30 total tackles in his first two seasons.
Omenihu became a post-season defensive threat for the 49ers and in San Francisco's first playoff win, he notched six pressures on 27 pass-rush opportunities across 35 total snaps against the Cowboys.
Ridgeway was originally drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the fourth round (116th overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft. Throughout his six-year career with the Colts (2016-18) and Philadelphia Eagles (2019-21), he has appeared in 65 games (12 starts) and registered 80 tackles, 9.5 sacks, one pass defensed and one forced fumble. Ridgeway has also appeared in three postseason contests and added four tackles and 0.5 sacks.
Turay was originally drafted by the Colts in the second round (52nd overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft. Over the last four years with the Colts (2018-21), he has appeared in 38 games (three starts) and registered 33 tackles, 12.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Turay has also appeared in three postseason contests and added three tackles.
Over the last two seasons with San Francisco, Willis has appeared in 17 games and tallied 28 tackles, 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble in addition to three postseason appearances where he added four tackles.
Willis finished the 2021 season with 15 tackles, a career-high 3.0 sacks and one forced fumble in 10 games played and also recorded a blocked punt in San Francisco's NFC Divisional win against the Green Bay Packers.