2019 was special. The 49ers were so dominant on the defensive side of the ball that sometimes even the greatest quarterbacks looked like scared kids on the field. People usually said it was because the arrival of Nick Bosa but there were way more factors than just a great draft pick.
I remember what I wrote to the Hungarian faithful community when they asked me if I could give a prediction of what record I expect from the team back in 2019. Surprisingly I was negative (as usual) and I said it was going to be a 6-10 season. I couldn't believe my eyes when the team proved me wrong.
As a man I hate being wrong, but I always admit when I am (sooner or later). Understanding the fact that you're not always right is a huge step forward to adulthood, which is almost as important as staying as positive in every situation as possible.
I don't like predictions at all, in my opinion predicting something is like future telling based on statistics and trends and hoping that nothing will turn things around. But I was never as happy as I was in 2019 when I was wrong with my prediction.
Sadly almost all my predictions were bullseyes in 2020 (those weren't positive at all...) and I almost hit the center of the darts target before the 2021 draft but a miracle happened so I'm here writing this article hoping that I'm not going to be right with this but I want to share my concerns about our defensive line so here we are.
What made the niners D-line so special in 2019?
No, it wasn't just Bosa, but he was a huge part of it.
Remember, our best four men up front were Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Bosa.
The 49ers defense played Wide 9 back then with a widely spread defensive line, versatile linebackers and cornerbacks who had hole responsibilities as well and safeties who read the field as fast as possible and attacked the box lighting fast when it was necessary.
That was the first year when Robert Saleh showed the world what a genius he is, although back then he made some "high risk - high gain" calls that sometimes put the defense into bad situations where they gave up some points.
In 2020, Saleh proved he's a defensive mastermind in the NFL with third- and fourth-string players and a completely different scheme and, most importantly, with a way less dominant D-line.
Bosa and Solomon Thomas got injured fast and the team traded Buckner to draft Javon Kinlaw into the defensive tackle position which was one of the greatest mistakes this franchise did in the past decade.
I see the pure talent and the upside Kin(raw)law has but to be honest I doubt that he could ever be as good as Buckner is right now.
In 2019 with our best defensive lineup, the defense was unstoppable, and Buckner was a huge part of that. From our four starting linemen there were three who were forcing other teams to double team them: Buckner, Ford and Bosa.
Ford earned a lot of hate in the past years because of him being injury prone but if I want to be honest he made Bosa look better in 2019. Ford is a really unique kind of defensive end who has the ability to convert his amazing speed into strength. He has great technique and understands the game in a way that most players simply don't. He could have been one of the greatest defensive ends, but injuries have ruined his career.
If you watch his tape from 2019 you can see that he was double teamed a lot by a running back and a tackle, and that gave Bosa the opportunity to fight in one-on-one situations that were way easier. That's why Bosa had way better stats when Ford was on the field.
So we can agree that the defensive ends were scary two years ago, but the interior line was even scarier with the two "big guys" -- DeFo and Armstead -- who both had career years two seasons ago. DeFo was the engine of that defense ever since he arrived to the team and in 2019 was among the guys who made the most pressure against double teams. And he faced double teams most of the time because he was (and still is) an unstoppable force for any O-line. The only DT who earned the right to be mentioned on the same page with Aaron Donald.
Armstead was in a different situation. With the "magic three" mentioned before he had a way easier job generating pressure because offensive lines concentrated on the other three rushers. Arik is a physically-gifted, versatile lineman who never really had a position in the defensive line. He is not fast enough to be an effective pass rusher and can't use his mass to be good enough as an interior defensive lineman, but he found the holes the other three generated and lived with the opportunity.
The rest is history. Being the fourth-best lineman earned him a new contract, and the team chose to re-sign him, not Buckner.
But nobody cared, because everyone was so excited about the "Revenge Tour" that most of them forgot that Buckner was one of the three reasons why team went to the Super Bowl.
But there was no revenge, not from the Niners
The defensive line wasn't good. It was above average with Kerry Hyder being the best rusher and Kevin Givens being the best defensive tackle. Kinlaw's first year was disappointing, Givens might not play football in the near future, Hyder is not the part of the team anymore and Armstead's performance just doesn't deserve a word (nor a contract). Oh, and I forgot to mention that Ford will most likely retire from football so what we have right now is:
Armstead, Bosa, Javon Kinlaw and an almost healthy Ford. I won't put Samson Ebukam on this list because I believe he will be a situational rusher, not an all-around defensive lineman.
If Kinlaw makes a jump this year, the line can improve big time, but he is not the type of player that Buckner is and he never will be. You should never trade the leader of your defense for a first-round pick when you have the money to keep him.
And I'm still concerned about DeMeco Ryans. You shouldn't expect him to be as good as Saleh was. He doesn't have the experience and we still don't have a clue what scheme the team will use in the future but I'm sure his first year won't be as strong as some people think it will be.