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Potential X-factor? Jeremiah Attaochu May be the Key to 49ers Defense in 2018

There’s a chance that we look back at the Jeremiah Attaochu signing as one of John Lynch's savviest moves during his early tenure as the San Francisco 49ers general manager. There are a few reasons for that suggestion.

For starters, Attaochu is a pass rusher – a position of need and scarcity across the NFL. There’s a reason why elite edge players never reach free agency. DeMarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah were the latest two examples of pass rushers to get hit with the franchise tag instead of hitting the open market.

That’s why Attaochu was a shrewd acquisition if for no other reason than he offers promising potential where the 49ers are in need of an impact player.

“My mindset is to come out and be that guy that John Lynch (envisioned),” Attaochu said recently on the 49ers Studios Podcast. “I want to motivate my teammates and play hard with my teammates and bring everything I have to the table.”

Attaochu’s path to the NFL is unique. He moved from Nigeria to Washington D.C. back in 2001 at eight years old. He later attended Georgia Tech before being selected by the Chargers in the second-round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He started immediately and even tallied six sacks in 2015. A broken foot during the 2016 season marked the beginning of the end for Attaochu with the Chargers. By the time he made it back to full strength, he was buried on the depth chart by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.

He entered free agency with minimal fanfare. Attaochu signing with the 49ers barely made a blip on the radar until Daniel Jeremiah suggested that the pass rusher still has some untapped potential.

“(I’m) an explosive and relentless pass rusher,” Attaochu shared in his scouting report of himself. “That’s always been my M.O. It’s what brought me (to the NFL).”

Now Attaochu is looking like a potential X-factor for the 49ers in 2018. If the offseason program is any indication of the defense’s current depth chart, then Attaochu is slated as the team’s top pass rusher. He’ll have the consistent opportunity to harass the opposing quarterback. That opportunity is what drew Attaochu to San Francisco.

DeForest Buckner would be the biggest benefactor of any emergence from Attaochu. Buckner, who led the NFL with 19 quarterback hits in 2017, was rarely aided by a supplemental pass rush from the edge. Attaochu and the rest of the 49ers defensive line is fully aware of the meager expectations placed on them. Many fans and pundits around the country still see pass rush as a glaring hole on the roster. Attaochu is far more bullish on his group’s outlook for 2018.

“We have the potential to go out there and get the job done,” Attaochu said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. When I step on the field, I know that I’ve got what it takes to get it done, and I know my teammates have what it takes to get it done.”

Attaochu’s focus this offseason is on developing a variety of pass-rush moves. Much like a pitcher in baseball, you’ve got to have more than a fastball. San Francisco added pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin to the coaching staff this offseason for just that purpose. With Kiffin’s assistance, Attaochu said the highlight of his offseason program was refining his “double swipe move.”

The fifth-year pro called his time in San Francisco “better than expected” thus far. Attaochu sees the vision laid out by Lynch and Kyle Shanahan and is eager to be a part of their plan. He bet on himself in free agency by signing a one-year deal with the 49ers in the hopes of proving that he’s capable of being a bona fide NFL pass rusher. Attaochu hopes that a successful campaign this season will help him land a long-term deal in San Francisco next offseason. He knows this is where he wants to be.

But there’s no sense in putting the cart in front of the horse. There’s still much work to be done if Attaochu and the rest of the 49ers defensive line are to improve the 26th-ranked pass rush from a season ago.

“We are all hungry,” Attaochu said. “We know we have the talent to get it done. The rest is up to us.”

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