San Francisco has a more talented roster than most teams who only win six games. Injuries were the primary reason for their sub .500 record. The team lost multiple key players in George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Deebo Samuel. Despite the loss of talent, Robert Saleh’s defense was top five in yards allowed. However, with the injury to Bosa, they were below average in generating a pass rush (23rd in pressures). Ultimately, this resulted in a middle-of-the-road defense (17th) when it came to stopping opponents from scoring.
The 49ers were able to retain notable contributors around the foundation of Warner and Bosa. The underrated re-signings of players like K’Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley, Jason Verrett, and DJ Jones will keep together players familiar with one another. Despite continuity with the roster, major questions persist after Robert Saleh departed to coach the Jets.
2021 SCHEME NOTES
Well-run organizations are able to fill vacancies by hiring from within and transition smoothly into the next year. This has yet to be determined if this is the case for the 49ers. They are promoting former NFL player DeMeco Ryans to fill the void of Defensive Coordinator. He becomes the youngest DC in the NFL after previously serving under Saleh as the linebackers coach. I don’t expect Ryan to alter the defense, as he spent his first years in coaching learning from his predecessor.
Assuming the defense looks similar to last year’s unit, Ryan will utilize exclusively a four-man front with two interior linemen to take on blockers, leaving the linebackers to plug up run gaps. This requires heavy usage of two and three LBs on the field at the same time, great for IDP. It also requires strong coverage skills from the linebackers as they will rarely come off the field. With two linebackers always on the field, don’t expect as many snaps for extra defensive backs.
Nick Bosa arrived in San Francisco in 2019 to much fanfare. He came into the draft that season rated as the top prospect for most analysts, despite only playing three games his final year at Ohio State. His best year in college was as a sophomore, recording 34 tackes and 8.5 sacks in 14 games. He built on that campaign the next year by dominanting the first three games with 14 tackles and four sacks. Then a groin injury lingered and prevented him from providing a truly dominant season we usually see from top prospects. Still, there was enough on tape for the 49ers to draft him at second overall.
Despite less production than the top DLs, his rookie tape shows that he’s on the trajectory to join the elite. He was awarded Defensive Rookie of the Year to recognize his strong play out the gate. All this came alongside superstar Deforest Buckner, who departed for Indianapolis via trade in 2020. Last year, Bosa was supposed to lead this defensive front until an ACL tear in week two got in the way. His rehab has gone well, and it appears he’ll be ready to go to start the year and pick up where he left off as a budding young star.
Bosa is already a top dynasty asset because he’s an elite talent at a shallow position. He’s worth the cost of one of the first IDP players off the board. He checks all the boxes required of making a premium investment: talent, age, and positional scarcity. Myles Garrett and TJ Watt bring proven production within the top tier and are in their prime years, but Bosa offers longevity and upside that only fellow former Buckeye Chase Young can match. Bosa will likely join Young as one of the first five defensive linemen off the board in drafts.
Last offseason, San Francisco was forced to choose who to pay: Armstead or Buckner? They chose to pay Armstead and get the thirteenth pick in the draft by trading Buckner. Armstead declared in 2015 after his junior season, where he put together 46 tackles to go with 5.5 sacks. San Francisco invested in the trenches and selected Armstead at pick 17 that draft.
His NFL start was marred by injuries and constant change in coaching, playing his first full season in 2018. He followed that up with a career year during their Superbowl run in 2019, amassing 10 sacks and 54 tackles. Forced to try to shoulder the load solo in 2020, Armstead only finished the year with just 3.5 sacks. His 23 pressures on the season suggest that number was a bit unlucky, pointing to possible regression to higher sack numbers. The improved talent around him could further help Armstead return to higher production. With a return to production, he would be a good target in leagues that consider him a DT. If grouped together with all other pass rushers, he’s likely just a depth piece to a roster.
It’s hard to put Dee Ford in a “sleeper” category, but he has not lived up to the hype since his one productive year during his final season in Kansas City. His path to double-digit sacks exists but is questionable after battling injuries three of the past four years. A concerning back injury in week one last year ended his season. He’s been important for this defensive line to function at a high level, as the unit’s performance suffers without him on the field. He’s a good lottery ticket if you can pick him up at a discount, on the chance he stays healthy. Looking forward, it feels like he is closer to the end of his tenure as a 49er than he is to a key contributor to the team.
Unfair lofty expectations were thrust upon Javon Kinlaw by virtue of his selection coming from the draft capital acquired in the Deforest Buckner trade. Kinlaw is not Buckner, but he does flash enough potential to provide interior pressure. All-Pro Fred Warner behind him will mask any deficiencies in the run game as he grows into his role. He’s a long way away from fantasy relevance, so in most leagues, you can monitor from a distance. In a DT premium or leagues with DT-specific starters, I’m willing to stash him on the end of my bench or taxi squad and be patient with a raw talent in a great system.
Warner is one of the game’s best linebackers. He may not get the same notoriety of tackle monsters like Bobby Wagner or Roquan Smith, but as far as NFL talent goes he’s one of the best. PFF ranks Warner as the 20th best player overall in the league, behind only Wagner at linebacker. Warner excels in coverage where many other linebackers struggle. His skills hail back to playing in the “overhang” role at BYU, where he was asked to frequently cover the slot. Warner’s coverage ability is key to the 49ers’ ability to put two linebackers on the field together on every defensive snap, a rarity in the modern NFL. The 49ers selected him early in the third round of the 2018 draft, which now looks like a steal. Warner potentially dropped because of mediocre tackle numbers in college, but his ability to play every role well allowed for a swift transition to the pro game.
Right from the start, Warner was a beast in the middle of the field. He earned the starting role week one and cleaned up with 12 total tackles (11 solos). At the end of his rookie year, he made 124 combined tackles, good for twelfth in the NFL. Warner is a stat machine, not only averaging over 120 tackles a season but also piling up 21 critical pass breakups across his career. The points from extra categories like this make a significant difference on the year in IDP123 scoring where an average of seven pass defections a season equates to 21 extra points. Playing every snap in this defense allows Warner to get turnovers, and he has recently contributed a few sacks.
Warner is going into his contract year, and will likely get a large payday before he can hit the free agent market. Staying tied to San Francisco would stabilize him as a dynasty LB1. The linebacker position can see frequent turnover year to year, as not all players scoring a lot IDP fantasy points are actually playing well enough to keep their job. With Warner, you get both: fantasy points and irreplaceable quality of play. Finally, while linebackers often find themselves missing games to injury, Warner has played in every game in his career, so far giving a level of reliability that even players like Darius Leonard can’t meet. I am targeting Warner at a value while others are swept up in the hype of recent rookies.
Dre Greenlaw was drafted by San Francisco in the 5th round of the 2019 draft out of Arkansas. Greenlaw was productive through his four-year college career but was not a standout prospect. Some scouts considered him undersized and questioned his physicality and aggression. Greenlaw arrived in SF the same year star LB free agent Kwon Alexander signed a massive contract. With Fred Warner also coming off a stellar rookie year, his path to playing time seemed difficult. He put in the work to make the team and proved his value with special teams play. He stepped up when Kwon inevitably went down to an injury halfway through the season. Alongside Warner, he racked up 73 tackles over the final eight games as the vaunted San Francisco defense didn’t skip a beat in their Superbowl run. As for the questions about physicality in his prospect profile, he put those concerns to rest with one memorable game saving goal line tackle week 17 as time expired, securing the top seed for his team:
In 2020, the 49ers grew frustrated with the albatross contract given to oft injured Kwon Alexander. They traded Kwon mid-season, freeing up a full-time role for their young breakout sophomore playing just as well. Playing next to Warner makes anyone look good, but Greenlaw earned his own spot on PFF’s top 30 linebackers. Modern defenses rarely give two linebackers a full set of snaps, but San Francisco is one exception. Greenlaw should be valued alongside other every down players, but because Fred Warner has the spotlight, you can get him as your fourth linebacker. He’s still cheap in many dynasty leagues and with full-time snaps coming, he’s guaranteed to return value.
Behind those top two options, the depth chart is very thin. Azeez Al-Shaair is the one player who has seen meaningful snaps for the 49ers. He could contribute in a pinch but is only be a desperate temporary plug-in if injuries piled up. More likely than not, the 49ers will reinforce the position during training camp or sign a free agent mid-season if injuries strike. They could also play “heavy dime” or convert an extra safety to play linebacker, which adds interesting value for one of the 49ers’ DBs.
San Francisco has not had much value at safety in recent years. In some cases, it has been injury-related, like for Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmy Ward. For the most part, the lack of value is related to their scheme. Two linebackers are always on the field, making the tackles sideline to sideline. With Warner and Greenlaw filling that need, not many tackles leak through for players in the secondary. The 49ers also often align in two high looks, meaning both safeties play further from the line of scrimmage and out of ideal position to earn the tackle. Even when a safety does creep into the box, it isn’t consistently the same player.
One name I’m keeping my eye on and stashing: rookie fifth-round pick Talanoa Hufanga. Hufanga was a playmaker for USC last year, and he could fill in the role of “overhang” player if they go with three safeties in nickel packages. San Francisco played with three linebackers on the field 32% of the time last year. When that extra guy was Alexander, that made sense. With Al-Shaair third on the depth chart, there will be room for Hufanga to find some snaps and potentially a role.
San Francisco has some star players worth the required high investment in Warner and Bosa. Greenlaw however, is a lock to outproduce where he’s going in drafts and should be a must-target in all leagues. Feel free to take a stab at Armstead if he’s eligible for your DT leagues. Ford may be worth an end-of-bench stash, as he makes a difference for the team when he’s on the field and has the opportunity to bounce back if he can stay healthy.