Each week 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.
Building a strong defensive line is always a top priority for the 49ers. As the team entered the 2023 season, that priority remained the same.
"We had a lot of conversations about how we can make a really good team even better, and that's a hard thing to do," general manager John Lynch said during the 49ers 2023 State of the Franchise. "We tried to get a grasp on where can we be better, and the thing we kept coming back to was the defensive line.
"Albeit the No. 1 defense in football – we played really good defensive football, it was outstanding – but we felt like we had lost a little bit of our dominance on the D-line. When you think back to the 2019 season, when you were playing the Niners, you knew you were not going to have a lot of time to throw the ball. In the run game, you were going to have people penetrate... When we (Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan) first got together, one of the core principles we really agreed on was we're going to start up front. On defense, those guys are going to drive the bus... So this year, we knew we had to go get a difference maker."
That "difference maker" was former Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, one of the most highly sought after free agents available in 2023. The 49ers also welcomed four other free agents to further bolster their defensive front, veteran linemen Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Marlon Davidson and Darryl Johnson.
San Francisco's D-line did experience some turnover with Jordan Willis signing with the Las Vegas Raiders, Hassan Ridgeway signing with the Houston Texans, Charles Omenihu signing with the Kansas City Chiefs, Maurice Hurst signing with the Cleveland Browns and Samson Ebukam signing with the Indianapolis Colts. However, the unit retained a majority of its foundational pieces, still boasting elite playmakers such as Arik Armstead and the reigning AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa.
"I believe in everyone we have in the room," Armstead said. "We have starters on the whole defensive line, so we're going to be rotating in and sending in guys at a high clip. Our expectations for ourselves are to be the best, the organization has obviously invested upfront and have been doing that for years. We always put it on ourselves, we know we're going to have to play at a high level to get to the place we wanna get... So we're excited for the challenge and I definitely think we have the guys to go out there and get it done."
- Arik Armstead (9th Season)
- Alex Barrett (3rd Season)
- Robert Beal Jr. (1st Season)
- Nick Bosa (5th Season)
- Austin Bryant (5th Season)
- Marlon Davidson (4th Season)
- Kalia Davis (2nd Season)
- Clelin Ferrell (5th Season)
- Kevin Givens (4th Season)
- Javon Hargrave (8th Season)
- Kerry Hyder Jr. (8th Season)
- Drake Jackson (2nd Season)
- Darryl Johnson (5th Season)
- Javon Kinlaw (4th Season)
- T.Y. McGill (8th Season)
- Spencer Waege (1st Season)
As one of the 49ers biggest playmakers, Bosa capped off the 2022 season earning first-team All-Pro honors, ending the 17-game regular season slate as the league's sack leader and was named the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year at the 12th annual NFL Honors.
Bosa, and the entire defensive line's efforts helped San Francisco close out the regular season as the NFL's top-ranked defense and contributed to No. 1 finishes in interceptions (20), scoring defense (16.3 points per game), yards per game allowed (300.6), points per game allowed (16.3) and big play defense. The 16.3 points allowed per game and 77.7 rushing yards allowed per game (second in the NFL) were the lowest for the 49ers since 2011.
"It was an unbelievable season," Bosa said. "I think we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to build on."
Defensive Line Breakdown
Armstead is entering his ninth season in the NFL and has established himself as a versatile playmaker, working as a pass-rusher and a run-defender throughout his time on the 49ers D-line. Since being drafted by San Francisco 17th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, Armstead has amassed 275 total tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 75 quarterback hits and 28.5 sacks.
Despite missing eight games due to a variety of foot injuries in 2022, Armstead still led all 49ers interior defensive linemen with 30 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
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) in 2018. After a quick stint with the Las Vegas Raiders, Barrett signed to the 49ers practice squad in November of the 2019 season.
In 2020, Barrett saw action in seven games recording two quarterback hits on 119 defensive snaps and has since played on the team's practice squad.
A defensive lineman out of the University of Georgia, Beal Jr. was the second of two fifth-round draft picks selected by the 49ers in this year's NFL Draft. He appeared in 54 games (10 starts) in six years at Georgia and registered 72 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, two passes defended, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
"Beal's a really, really gifted athlete," Lynch said following this year's draft. "(University of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart) said someone's going to get a really gifted and talented player if they just let this guy go hunt QBs and set edges, and when he said that, that's exactly what we do... He ran a 4.47 (40-yard dash), so he adds speed. He's in the 6'3" range but he's got 34 and 335-inch (arm length), so he's got that length you look for."
Bosa is entering his fifth season with the 49ers. In 2022, Bosa notched one pass defended, two forced fumbles, 51 total tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 48 quarterback hits and a league-leading 18.5 sacks. The defensive lineman's 18.5 sacks on the season are the second-most in a single season in franchise history (19.5, Aldon Smith in 2012) and Bosa is eighth on the list of 49ers all-time sack leaders (43.0).
The AP Defensive Player of the Year honors caps off a long list of accolades earned by No. 97 throughout the course of the 2022 campaign. Bosa was named the Pro Football Writers of America Defensive Player of the Year and the NFL on FOX Defensive Player of the Year along with earning First-Team All-Pro honors and being named to his third Pro Bowl.
Bryant was originally drafted by the Detroit Lions in the fourth round (117th overall) of the 2019 NFL Draft. Throughout his four-year NFL career with the Lions (2019-22), the defensive lineman has appeared in 33 games (six starts) and registered 65 tackles, 4.5 sacks and one pass defended.
In the 2022 season, Bryant appeared in nine games and recorded nine tackles and one pass defended.
Davidson was originally drafted in the second round (47th overall) of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. During the defensive lineman's three years in Atlanta (2020-22), Davidson appeared in 19 games (one start) and registered 29 tackles, two passes defended, one interception, one fumble recovery and a sack.
Davis was the second of three sixth-round picks (220th overall) selected by the 49ers in the 2022 NFL draft. After suffering a torn ACL in 2021, the defensive lineman spent the majority of his rookie season on the team's Non-Football Injury List. Davis closed out the year with three weeks of practice late in the season.
Ferrell was originally drafted by the Raiders as the fourth-overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Throughout his four-year NFL career with the Raiders (2019-22), he has appeared in 58 games (30 starts) and registered 102 tackles, 11 passes defended, 10.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
In the 2022 season, Ferrell appeared in 16 games (four starts) and finished with 25 tackles, 2.0 sacks and two passes defended.
Givens originally entered the NFL after signing as an undrafted free agent with the 49ers in 2019. Over his four seasons with San Francisco, Givens has played in 40 games (12 starts) and added 57 tackles, 3.0 sacks, two passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He has also appeared in six postseason games and tallied 10 tackles, one pass defensed and a 0.5 sack.
In 2022, Givens appeared in 13 games (11 starts) and recorded 20 tackles, 2.0 sacks and one pass defensed. He also appeared in all three postseason games where he added four tackles. In March, Givens signed a one-year extension through the 2023 season with the 49ers.
Hargrave was originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round (89th overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft. Throughout his seven-year NFL career with the Steelers (2016-19) and Philadelphia Eagles (2020-22), the defensive lineman has appeared in 111 games (96 starts) and registered 329 tackles, 37.5 sacks, six passes defended, four forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. Hargrave has also appeared in eight postseason contests and added 22 tackles, 3.0 sacks and one pass defended.
In the 2022 season, Hargrave started all 17 games and finished with 60 tackles, a career-high 11.0 sacks, two fumble recoveries, two passes defended and one forced fumble, earning a 2022 Pro Bowl selection. He also started all three postseason games and notched nine tackles, a sack and one pass defended.
Hyder Jr. originally entered the NFL after signing with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2014. Throughout his eight NFL seasons, Hyder Jr. has recorded 160 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 58 quarterback hits, 21 sacks and four passes defended with the Detroit Lions (2015-18), Dallas Cowboys (2019), 49ers (2020, 2022) and Seattle Seahawks (2021).
Hyder Jr. wrapped up his second stint with San Francisco in 2022, returning to The Bay after spending the 2021 season with the Seahawks. Last season, the defensive lineman recorded 19 total tackles, including a sack and four quarterback hits in addition to four pass breakups.
Jackson was selected by the 49ers in the second round (61st overall) of the 2022 NFL Draft out of Southern California. While he did see action in 15 games his rookie year, Jackson hopes to improve upon his first-year stat line (3.0 sacks and 14 total tackles) and take on a larger role on the 49ers revamped defensive line.
"He's putting in the work and he's broken through barriers that maybe he's never had to push through previously," defensive line coach Kris Kocurek said about Jackson's offseason training.
Johnson was originally drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round (225th overall) of the 2019 NFL Draft. Throughout his four-year NFL career with the Bills (2019-20), Carolina Panthers (2021) and Seattle Seahawks (2022), the defensive lineman has appeared in 38 games (one start) and registered 21 tackles and 2.0 sacks.
In the 2022 season, Johnson appeared in four games (one start) and recorded three tackles.
Kinlaw is entering his fourth season in the NFL. The defensive lineman was drafted 14th overall by the 49ers in the 2020 NFL Draft and appeared in 24 games with San Francisco, missing games while dealing with knee injuries. In his three years with the 49ers, the defensive tackle has recorded 45 total tackles, three tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, four passes defended and one interception returned for a touchdown.
"JK is doing great. He is really in a good spot," Lynch said. "He looks tremendous. He's preparing, he's excited about his preparation. I think it's a good feeling when you've battled injuries year after year and you're in a healthy spot and you can see it in the way he's walking around here. He's just very encouraged and in a really good place. And I think he's earned that right. He's worked really hard to be here. I think we're all really encouraged by it and excited to see what can come."
McGill originally entered the NFL after signing as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks in 2015. Throughout his eight-year NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts (2015-2016), Cleveland Browns (2017), Philadelphia Eagles (2018, 2020), Los Angeles Chargers (2018-19), Minnesota Vikings (2021) and 49ers (2022), he has appeared in 55 games and registered 43 tackles, 5.5 sacks, three passes defensed and one forced fumble. He has also appeared in four postseason contests where he tallied three tackles.
In October of 2022, McGill signed with San Francisco and spent the remainder of the season between the practice squad and active roster, appearing in nine games and registering eight tackles. McGill also appeared in all three postseason games where he added two tackles. In May, McGill re-signed with the 49ers to a one-year deal.
A defensive lineman out of North Dakota State, Waege appeared in 57 games (29 starts) and registered 138 tackles, 42.0 tackles for loss, 20.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, four passes defended and one fumble recovery. Following the 2022 season, he earned FCS First-Team All-American honors and First-Team All-Missouri Valley Conference honors.
In May, Waege agreed to terms with the 49ers to become an undrafted free agent.