After a No. 1 overall finish in 2022, there is plenty of hype surrounding the San Francisco 49ers defense headed into the 2023 season. Can the best defensive unit in the NFL run it back with a new defensive coordinator and some new faces in the mix?
While they did experience some turnover, San Francisco's defense retained a majority of its foundational players. The unit still boasts the reigning AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Nick Bosa, four All-Pros and three Pro Bowlers, all of whom are expected to be suiting up in red and gold come fall.
Additionally, the team brought in one of the most highly sought after free agents, defensive lineman Javon Hargrave, to further bolster the interior of the 49ers defensive front. He terrorized opposing offenses last season, tallying 60 total tackles (10 tackles for loss), a career-high 11.0 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble in his 17 regular season starts.
As far as young talent, the team dedicated five of its nine draft picks to the defensive side of the ball. Safety Ji'Ayir Brown was the consensus draft pick for the 49ers, and the team made a decisive trade up to Pick No. 87 to secure their selection. Brown closed out his final two seasons of college football with ten interceptions.
Here's three things we learned about San Francisco's defensive unit this offseason:
Bosa and Hargrave were in attendance for 49ers veteran minicamp in June, and there is a bond forming between the two elite defensive linemen.
Hargrave opted to do his offseason training away from Santa Clara, so veteran minicamp was the first time he suited up and participated in practice with his new squad. While Bosa did not work out with the team, he was spotted chatting up Hargrave on the sidelines and was vocal about his enthusiasm to be working alongside the defensive tackle.
"I'm super excited. We've been watching tape on him the past few years in Philly," Bosa said. "Every time we watch him, Kris (Kocurek) raves about him, and we think about him as one of the best interior guys in the league, especially when it comes to rushing the passer. To have him on our side is going to be a huge addition for us."
Both players mentioned that their offseason training hasn't changed up much from the previous season, and taking into account the tremendous year each of them had, that should not come as much of a surprise.
Defensive back Deommodore Lenoir has come back stronger, leaner and more confident in Year 3.
Lenoir's sophomore season proved to be a formative one for the third-year pro who spent most of the year as a starter following a season-ending injury to Emmanuel Moseley. The corner worked in tandem with Charvarius Ward and racked up 54 total tackles (six tackles for loss), two quarterback hits, an interception and five passes defended in his 13 regular season starts. Lenoir rode his momentum in to the playoffs, coming away with a pick in two of the 49ers three postseason contests.
"The game slowed down a lot for me, just with getting the reps all last year," Lenoir said. "This year, it's time to just take the next step and be one of the next corners in the league."
This offseason, Lenoir split time training in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and The Bay and has returned seven or so pounds leaner and able to move better on the field. Much of the work he's put into his offseason has been geared into improving one particular facet of his game.
"Just finishing at level three and playing the ball down the field," Lenoir noted. "I feel like I struggled last year with playing the ball down the field. I'm trying to track the ball and play with confidence."
Second-year defensive lineman Drake Jackson hasn't taken much time off, and it shows.
Jackson spent most of the offseason in Santa Clara, and during the team's organized activities, his gains were on display. The sophomore defensive lineman put on noticeable muscle mass (to the tune of 13 pounds) and shared he's reached new lifting benchmarks as result of his grind.
"I really just focused in on my body," Jackson said. "Just lifting, trying to get big and focusing in on my mental as well. I know last year everything was kind of a blur. I've just been really settling down and keying in to all my details."
According to defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, the training started not long after the 49ers loss in the NFC Championship Game and has been consistent over the past few months.
"He's putting in the work and he's broken through barriers that maybe he's never had to push through previously," Kocurek said.
While he did see action in 15 games his rookie year, Jackson's 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.
Limited late season reps and some motivating words from head coach Kyle Shanahan and Kocurek served as big time motivation for Jackson heading into the offseason.
"You've just got to take it and run with it," Jackson said. "If you take it in a bad way or a wrong way, it could affect you. I took that, and I ran with it."