While the 49ers will see a number of their starters on defense returning in 2020, there's a glaring void when considering the loss of DeForest Buckner, who was packaged in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts earlier this offseason. It's tough to not only replace his talent, but his character in the locker room. San Francisco's defensive line understands that replacing their former teammate can't fall on the shoulders of a single person. Instead, it will be a group effort to maintain moving forward.
"Losing DeFo, he's an irreplaceable player, leader and a staple in our organization," Arik Armstead said. "There's definitely going to be a void there that not just one person's going to be able to fill.
"We have a great group of guys and we have a great team. I feel like we weren't relying on just three guys throughout the year when we needed a play or we need leadership. It was a group effort. Guys at their own times stepped up and made big plays in the entirety of the roster. I think we're built the right way to adjust to something like this. And moving forward, I expect me and a whole host of my teammates stepping up in leadership ways on the field and in making plays and filling that void."
San Francisco's defensive line, more times than not, overpowered opponents in 2019. The 49ers managed 61 sacks in 19 games, playoffs included. Six players notched 3.0 or more sacks in 2019 with Armstead leading the charge with a career-high, 10. According to Pro Football Focus, San Francisco ranked third in the league in sack rate (8.5 percent) and second in pressure rate (28.7) last season.
San Francisco added reinforcements to their already-stout defensive line in rookie Javon Kinlaw. Kinlaw was regarded as one of the top defensive tackles in this year's draft. He was graded as Pro Football Focus' second-ranked interior pass rusher in college football last season with an 18.1 percent win rate. He amassed six sacks, seven quarterback hits and 26 quarterback hurries in 352 pass-rushing snaps last season to add to 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss across his final two seasons at South Carolina.
Despite the output, it's not uncommon for rookies to experience growing pains when transitioning to the NFL. If the outside pressures of filling the shoes of a Pro Bowl tackle weren't enough, Kinlaw is also challenged with virtually adjusting to a new playbook. Fortunately for Kinlaw, the 49ers aren't expecting him to take on the heavy-load of his predecessor.
"You can't really compare players in that sense, even though they play a similar position," Armstead said of Kinlaw and Buckner. "Javon is going to have his own career. But looking at him in the stuff I've seen, he's extremely talented, athletic (and) strong. He's going to add a lot to our team. When we all get back together, (we're going to) start that journey of helping bring him along and get him up to speed and being a leader and, guiding him throughout his career, especially in these early stages. I'm trying to help him any way I can. I'm excited about the opportunity of playing with him. We all have common goals to go out there and play together and start that journey."
Members of the defensive line have managed to regularly keep in touch this offseason. The unit is a part of a D-line group chat, where they commonly share workouts, daily routines and most importantly, hold one another accountable.
Kinlaw, the newest addition to the text chain, has the luxury of inheriting a defensive line that boasts four first-round picks and a supporting cast who sat near the top of the league in defensive stats in 2019. He'll certainly have a steeper learning curve in grasping the defense from afar given social distancing mandates, however, possesses a team of reinforcements (and plenty of film) to aid in the process.
"We can lead by example," Armstead continued. "We've been watching a lot of film from last year. He'll be able to learn a lot off of that and the standard and the examples of how we want to play. He can start going through the process of what it's supposed to look like and what we can be better at and what he can bring to the team to help us improve. I expect him to have a big role on our team."
With the number of returning pieces to a defense that ranked second in yards allowed and first in pass defense last season, the 49ers are hopeful their by-committee approach, with the addition of Kinlaw, will help San Francisco maintain their dominance moving forward.