49ers 2021 Roster Preview: Defensive End

The 49ers are razor thin on the edge of the defensive line.
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With the start of training camp now less than two weeks away, this is the perfect time to take a look at every player on the San Francisco 49ers roster, and how they fit with the team heading into training camp. So far, we’ve covered the offense. Today we begin to dig in on the defensive side of the ball with a look at the defensive ends.

Nick Bosa

The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year was able to play only 68 snaps in 2020. In a season opening loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Bosa finished with six tackles, one forced fumble and one hit on Kyler Murray. Unfortunately, Bosa would suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the first quarter of the 49ers Week 2 victory over the New York Jets, and be lost for the season.

A tireless worker, the 49ers must hope that Bosa can recover like he did with his previous knee injury. As a senior in high school, Bosa tore the ACL in his right knee but was able to play in 12 games as a freshman at Ohio State the following season, registering five sacks while coming off the bench.

Arik Armstead

Armstead had a career season in 2019, and the 49ers chose to stick with him over Deforest Buckner. With Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and DeForest Buckner no longer on the field to help take the focus away from him, Armstead would see his production drop back to what it had been prior to that breakout contract season.

The loss of Ford was especially to blame for Armstead’s lack of production. While Armstead lines up as a defensive end in the 49ers base defense, he is at his best when he can move inside in pass rushing situations. Without Ford, Armstead was forced to stay on the outside much more often in 2020 and the results were not good.

Samson Ebukam

Despite a limited number of pass rushing opportunities with the Rams, Ebukam has been able to rack up 14 sacks in his first four seasons. To put this number in perspective, Armstead managed only nine sacks in his first four seasons before breaking out in 2019.

Ebukam isn’t a particularly skilled pass rusher, often winning due to a relentlessness that is similar to that of another undersized pass rusher -- former Minnesota Viking John Randle. Most of the time you will see Ebukam simply drive the tackle back with his strength, and once the quarterback is forced to move, he has the ability to disengage quickly and use his speed to close for the sack.

San Francisco has struggled with containing running quarterbacks in recent years, another area in which the addition of Ebukam should provide a boost.

Arden Key

The 49ers showed interest in Key during the lead up to the draft in 2018. As an outside linebacker at LSU, Key set the LSU single season record for sacks during his sophomore season in 2016 with a total of 12. Looking to back that up in 2017, Key would suffer through an injury plagued junior season before declaring for the NFL draft.

Originally projected as a first-round prospect, Key would need to wait until the middle of the third round, where the Oakland Raiders would make him the No. 87 selection.

Key would play 1,257 snaps over the course of three seasons with the Raiders, and register a total of three sacks. This led to his release in April. The 49ers would sign him a week later.

Dee Ford

Ford would make it through only 46 snaps in the opening game before missing the remainder of the 2020 season.

After restructuring his contract to help lower his salary cap number, Ford has been rehabbing in an attempt to get back onto the field. While there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Ford’s status, the 49ers are hopeful that they will be able to get something out of the veteran this season.

Jordan Willis

The 25-year-old would finish with a career high 2.5 sacks in only seven games with the 49ers after being acquired from the Jets at the trade deadline.

San Francisco re-signed Willis in March, but he will miss the first six games of the season after violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. Despite the suspension, Willis has been able to workout with the team all offseason and will be taking part in training camp and preseason games

Alex Barrett

Barrett broke into the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2017. During his time in Detroit, Barrett played for current 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. After being released by Detroit, Barrett would bounce around between the San Diego Fleet of the AAF, where he was a teammate to Daniel Brunskill, and the Oakland Raiders before finally landing on the San Francisco practice squad late in the 2019 season.

The 2020 season would once again see Barrett bounce around, this time it was between the 49ers active roster and the practice squad. In all, Barrett would see action in seven games recording a total of five tackles and two quarterback hits.

2021 Outlook:

With Dee Ford’s availability a question mark and Jordan Willis out for the first six games of the season, the 49ers are razor thin on the edge of the defensive line.

In addition to Ford, another question mark in this group is Bosa. He is looking to come back from his second major injury in three seasons, and how the 49ers work him in will be something to keep an eye on. After injuring his knee in high school, Bosa was used as a rotational piece during his first year at Ohio State. The 49ers don’t have that luxury due to the lack of depth, but look for Key to be used to spot Bosa early on through the season while Willis serves his suspension.

On the other side of the line, Armstead will once again start in the 49ers base defense with Ebukam stepping in to fill the role vacated due to the Ford injury on passing downs. This will allow both players to show off what they do best. Armstead rushing from the interior, with Ebukam sealing off the edge.

While Armstead often struggled to hold the edge in pass rushing situations, that is a strength of Ebukam. The San Francisco defense in general has struggled with containing running quarterbacks in recent years, and the addition of Ebukam should provide a boost. The four-year veteran was often used as a spy for the Rams against division rivals Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson with positive results. Consider this, the Cardinals and Seahawks quarterbacks ran for 218 yards on 33 carries against the 49ers in 2020, but were held to only 87 yards on 18 carries against the Rams. If the 49ers can keep those two in the pocket, their chances of winning will increase exponentially, and so will their chances of reclaiming the NFC West title.