Every day leading up to the start of training camp set for July 28, 49ers.com will assess each position group on the roster as we get closer to the season. In the final installment of the 49ers positional breakdown, 49ers.com is addressing San Francisco's defensive line and assessing the recent changes along unit.
The 49ers underwent a fairly massive shakeup to their championship-caliber defense this offseason. San Francisco sent defensive anchor DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the 13th-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, which begged the question, "Who can replace the All-Pro, Pro Bowl talent?"
The 49ers leaned on their depth along the defensive line with a rotation of players throughout their 2019 campaign. The team is likely to take the same approach to help fill the void of Buckner's substantial load. San Francisco re-signed Arik Armstead and Ronald Blair III this offseason, two key pieces of the 49ers D-line success in 2019. The team also added draft capital by jumping back a spot to select South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw with the 14th-overall pick, a starting-caliber defensive rookie the team hopes can help take pressure off the interior.
Despite the loss of a defensive stalwart, 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? How will Kinlaw adapt to the NFL despite a reduced offseason? Can San Francisco's altered unit remain good enough to aid the team in another championship run?
- Arik Armstead (6th Season)
- Alex Barrett (1st Season)
- Ronald Blair III (5th Season)
- Nick Bosa (2nd Season)
- Darrion Daniels (1st Season)
- Dee Ford (7th Season)
- Kevin Givens (1st Season)
- Willie Henry Jr. (3rd Season)
- Kerry Hyder Jr. (5th Season)
- D.J. Jones (4th Season)
- Javon Kinlaw (1st Season)
- Jonathan Kongbo (1st Season)
- Kentavius Street (2nd Season)
- Jullian Taylor (3rd Season)
- Solomon Thomas (4th Season)
San Francisco ranked second in the league in total defense and first in pass defense in 2019, in large part due to the performance of the 49ers defensive line.
The 49ers sought to build a formidable pass rush to counter the quarterback position. The team traded for edge rusher Dee Ford and drafted Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick to add to a bevy of first-round talent along the defensive line.
The unit developed into a vaunted defensive front, loaded with bright, young talent. San Francisco finished the regular season second in the NFL in yards allowed per game (281.8) and yards per play (4.66), first in forced fumbles (21), third in fumble recoveries (13) and fifth in sacks (48).
San Francisco's 39.2 percent pressure rate as a team ranked third in the NFL behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, and the 49ers were able to accomplish that number while blitzing just 21.8 percent of the time — the 27th-lowest rate in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. The 49ers were the only team in the NFL to have four-or-more players with 6.5-or-more sacks in 2019: Armstead (10.0), Bosa (9.0), Buckner (7.5) and Ford (6.5).
Defensive Line Breakdown
Arik Armstead: Armstead is coming off of a career-year in his fifth season with the 49ers. He started all 16 games and finished the 2019 regular season with a team leading and career-high 10.0 sacks, tied for 15th in the NFL. He also registered career-highs in tackles (54), forced fumbles (2) and fumble recoveries (1). In the postseason, he registered eight additional tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Armstead was rewarded with a five-year contract extension this offseason following his career year in 2019.
Alex Barrett: Barrett signed with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted rookie in 2017. He appeared in two games with Detroit and registered one tackle and 1.0 sack prior to being waived by the team in September. Shortly thereafter, he was signed to the team's practice squad where he spent the remainder of the season. He signed with the Oakland Raiders last April before being waived during final roster cuts. Barrett was signed to the 49ers practice squad last November.
Ronald Blair III: Blair III was on his way to having a standout season as a rotational piece along the 49ers defensive line before a knee injury cut his campaign short. Blair III appeared in nine games and registered 21 tackles, 3.0 sacks and a single-season career-high one fumble recovery before being placed on Injured Reserve in Week 10. The 49ers re-signed the defensive lineman to a one-year deal this offseason.
Nick Bosa: Bosa is coming off of a record-setting campaign in 2019. The reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year appeared in all 16 games and registered 9.0 sacks, the fourth-most by a 49ers rookie since 1982, along with 47 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. He also started all three postseason games and notched 15 tackles, 4.0 sacks, two passes defended and a forced fumble en route to earning his first Pro Bowl honor.
Darrion Daniels: Undrafted out of Nebraska, the 49ers signed the rookie at the conclusion of April's draft. Daniels started 11 games at Nebraska in 2019 as a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State. He earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors after finishing with 34 tackles, four for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception with the Cornhuskers. In four years at Oklahoma State, the 6-foot-3, 311-pound nose tackle appeared in 40 games (four starts) and notched 64 tackles, 2.0 sacks, three passes defensed and an interception.
Dee Ford: In tandem with Bosa, Ford and his linemate were recognized as one the of the top pass rush duos in the NFL. Ford missed five games in 2019 while dealing with lingering knee and hamstring injuries, however, was effective when on the field. Ford recorded 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2019, while also amassing 25 quarterback pressures on just 163 pass-rushing snaps. Ford underwent surgery this offseason that included an "extensive clean up" to repair his knee. The veteran pass rusher stated he feels “confident” heading into his second season in San Francisco.
Kevin Givens: Givens signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2019. Givens appeared in all four of the 49ers preseason contests and registered four tackles. He was signed to the 49ers practice squad at the beginning of the season and was promoted to the active roster ahead of the regular season finale against the Seattle Seahawks.
Willie Henry Jr.: Henry Jr. was originally drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. In three seasons with the Ravens, he appeared in 17 games (three starts) and registered 35 tackles, five passes defensed, 4.5 sacks and one fumble recovery. He was waived by Baltimore last August. Despite not playing in 2019, San Francisco signed the interior defensive lineman back in February.
Kerry Hyder: As an undrafted free agent, Hyder originally entered the NFL after signing with the New York Jets in 2014. After spending his entire rookie season on the Jets practice squad, Hyder signed a Reserve/Future contract with the Detroit Lions in 2015. He spent four seasons between the Lions practice squad and active roster, appearing in 23 games (two starts) and registering 42 tackles, 9.0 sacks, one pass defensed and one fumble recovery. Hyder signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent last March and appeared in all 16 games and finished with 17 tackles, 1.0 sack and one fumble recovery in 2019.
D.J. Jones: Jones is another defensive lineman who was on his way to a breakout campaign before being marred by injury. The former sixth-round pick earned the role as the 49ers starting nose tackle in 2019. He appeared in 11 games and recorded 23 total tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble before suffering a season-ending high-ankle sprain in Week 14. After choosing to forego any offseason procedures, Jones revealed that his ankle is “100 percent” and that he is fully capable of making cuts on his runs heading into training camp.
Javon Kinlaw: Kinlaw has big shoes to fill following the departure of Buckner this offseason. Regarded as the most effective pass-rushing interior lineman out of this past April's draft, Kinlaw amassed 10 sacks, 82 tackles, eight passes defended and four fumble recoveries over his three seasons at South Carolina. According to PFF, he posted a 90.7 pass-rush grade in 2019, which was third in the FBS, while recording the highest win rate at 18.8 percent — and he did that while playing a third of his reps at nose tackle.
Jonathan Kongbo: Kongbo joins the 49ers by way of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League (CFL). The defensive lineman was drafted by the Blue Bombers in 2019, where he appeared in 15 games and registered 14 tackles and 2.0 sacks. As an undrafted free agent out of the University of Tennessee (2016-18), Kongbo also spent time at Arizona Western College and Wyoming University. With the Volunteers, he appeared in 30 games (17 starts) and registered 51 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and two passes defensed.
Kentavius Street: The 49ers former fourth-round pick joined the 49ers while coming off a torn ACL suffered during his Pro Day in 2018. Sitting out the entire season, Street was placed on Injured Reserve at the start of the ensuing season. He was later activated in December of 2019 and appeared in three games before returning to IR in January.
Jullian Taylor: Taylor played in six games in 2019 and registered single-season career highs in tackles (9), passes defended (1) and fumble recoveries (1) before being placed on Injured Reserve with an ACL tear ahead of the regular season finale. Taylor notably registered a key stop on a 4th-and-1 run by Adrian Peterson against Washington in Week 7 and also recovered a fumble by Peterson, marking his first-career fumble recovery.
Solomon Thomas: Thomas played in all 16 games and registered 21 tackles and 2.0 sacks. He also appeared in all three of the 49ers postseason contests and tallied 4 tackles and 1.0 sack. The departure of Buckner could open up more opportunities for Thomas in the interior in 2020.