2020 Could be Last Time 49ers Defense is Elite
Jose Luis Sanchez III
Watching the San Francisco 49ers be so successful with their defense leading the way was massively surprising. Generally when a team has a head coach who specializes on one side of the ball, in this case the offense with Kyle Shanahan, it means that their strength will align accordingly.
That wasn’t the case last season as it was the defense that was the clear star of the show. 2020 is expected to be no different. The 49ers will have the same starters as they did with the exception of DeForest Buckner. Even the coaching staff remains identical aside from secondary coach Joe Woods, who now is the defensive coordinator for the Browns.
There is no reason that the 49ers defense will not be among the elite of the elite in 2020. However, fair warning, 49ers faithful: this upcoming season could be the last you see the defense as one of the league's best.
The reason for that is because of the unclear future for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
I have been outspoken about how overlooked cornerback K’Waun Williams is for his role in the defense. Well Saleh has been right there with him. He doesn’t get enough credit for the establishing the defense as a nightmare. Yes, the pass rushers are the focal point of the defense. But it is Saleh who is structuring the defense in a way where everyone can succeed.
In a league full of meathead coaches, it makes Saleh’s success a gem. And that is why his future with the 49ers is uncertain.
Even though he only had one head-coaching inquiry last season with the Browns, he put himself on the map by doing so. Although he may have saved himself by not going to Cleveland. Either way, it was wise of him to take the interview to let the whole league know about his ambition.
Saleh could very well be on the way out with his sights on becoming a head coach.
That is something Kyle Shanahan has and will continue to push Saleh towards. If he ends up leaving to become one, then it will be difficult to find a replacement for him. Saleh has been with the 49ers since 2017. He helped mold the defense and develop the culture that resonates throughout the franchise. No one knows more about the defense than he does since he was able to have a hand in creating it.
For someone else to step in and call plays, it just wouldn’t be the same. I’m not saying the defense will outright be terrible. Not at all. They very likely will still be good. A top-10 or top-15-caliber defense. But to be the best or one of the best, it might just be over with. Or it’s at least tough for me to envision them still a top-three defense.
I just wouldn’t hold my breathe on the defense of the 49ers maintaining its dominance past 2020 if Saleh is gone.