I think it’s fair to assume that a majority of San Francisco 49ers fans feel like their team is vastly improved ahead of the 2018 season. However, many will tell you that they still have one lingering question: Who the heck is going to rush the passer?
The concern stems from the fact that San Francisco’s defense posted just 30 sacks in 2017. And yet, outside of adding Jeremiah Attaochu, the 49ers will enter this season with the same cast of pass rushers.
That’s because those in the building believe in who’s already on the roster. There weren’t any big names in free agency to target, and the 49ers didn’t view any pass rushers in the draft as an obvious improvement.
Maybe the biggest offseason acquisition was pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin. The son of legendary defensive mind Monte Kiffin has been working with defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina to formulate a plan that will maximize the production of San Francisco’s pass rush.
“They’ve identified some stuff that’s going to be a cool dynamic,” Robert Saleh told 49ers.com. “I think we’re going to be much further along pass rush wise.”
DeForest Buckner will continue to be the focal point of that effort. Buckner is an elite talent, and a contingent of his teammates have started calling him “D-Poy” – referring to the lineman’s potential to win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Buckner led the NFL in quarterback hits last season but managed just three sacks. A combination of constant double teams and limited help from edge rushers contributed to that low sack total. So while Buckner expects himself to be a half-second faster in 2018, he’ll still need guys like Attaochu, Cassius Marsh, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead to take a step forward as well.
“Buckner is an animal, man,” Saleh said. “He’s very disruptive. He’s up there with all the best in the league. He’ll get better this year because our overall organization in how we operate up front will be better.”
The 49ers success on the defensive front will largely hinge on a pair of former first-round picks: Armstead and Thomas. Thomas tallied three sacks as a rookie, but the bulk of his production came against the run. Armstead has struggled to stay healthy during his three NFL seasons. Saleh and Kyle Shanahan have each noted that Armstead was having his best game before breaking his hand against the Washington Redskins in Week 6. San Francisco doubled down in their belief of Armstead by picking up his fifth-year option for 2019.
Saleh understands that his group has much to prove in his second year as the 49ers defensive coordinator. Turning potential into production isn’t a guarantee. But Saleh is confident all the same.
“I’m really excited for Year 2. I think we have a chance to build on what we did a year ago. I’m excited for the front four. I believe Solomon is going to take a big jump. I think Arik was really starting to come on before he got hurt.”
One final name to keep an eye on is Eli Harold. Harold was a third-round pick back in 2015 as a pass rusher. The coaching staff determined he’d be a better fit as a SAM linebacker, and Harold has since developed into one of the better edge setters in the league.
Saleh still believes that Harold has some untapped potential as a pass rusher, though. Saleh is keen on one of Harold’s moves in particular and believes it can be developed further. Harold might end up behind Attaochu and Marsh on the depth chart at LEO, but you can never have enough capable pass rushers.
“I feel like there’s something we can reach into with him,” Saleh said.
No matter how the 49ers season plays out, it’s likely that we’ll look back on their successes and/or failures as a direct correlation to the production of the team’s pass rush.