The 49ers defense was among the best in the NFL in 2019 and helped pave the way to a berth in the Super Bowl.
This group continued to play at a very high level in 2020 despite losing a number of starters to injury. Shortly after the season ended, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh moved on to become the New Your Jets head coach, and was replaced by DeMeco Ryans. Ryans has been with on the coaching staff since the current regime took over in 2017, serving as the inside linebackers coach since 2018.
Ryans may add a few of his own wrinkles, but look for the 49ers to continue to build on the scheme that Saleh put in place. With the new coordinator in place, now would be a good time to take a look at which defensive ends the 49ers will keep, and which ones they will release.
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 two victory over the New York Jets, and be lost for the season.
Keep or Release: Keep
Unless something crazy happens, like being included in a trade for a Deshaun Watson, Bosa will be back with the 49ers in 2021. 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.
After having surgery to clean up tendinitis in his left knee which limited him throughout 2019, it sounded like Ford was primed for a strong season. Ford would make it through only 46 snaps in the opening game before missing the remainder of the 2020 season.
Keep or Release: Release, June 1
Ford has dealt with injuries off and on throughout his career, and it sounds as though the most recent back injury could be the end of his time in San Francisco. The 49ers can save more than $15 million on their 2021 salary cap if they designate Ford as a June 1 cut, a total that goes down to just under $6 million for a non-June 1 cut.
While it seems like a no brainer to go the June 1 route, there are a couple of reasons why they might not choose this path. When a team uses the June 1 designation the contract stays on the books through that date. What that means for the 49ers is that they cannot take advantage of the savings because Ford’s contract would still be included among their top 51 salaries until after June 1.
The other negative to using a June 1 designation is that the dead cap number gets spread out over the remaining time on the contract. What this means for the 49ers front office is that if they decide to move on from Ford, they will need to decide if they want to eat the entire $14,354,988 in dead cap as a lump sum or spread it out over the next three seasons.
This will be an interesting one to watch.
Armstead had a career season in 2019, and the 49ers awarded him with a new 5-year, $85 million contract. 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 specially 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.
Keep or Release: Keep
With Ford not expected back for 2021, the 49ers will need to add a pass rusher through free agency or the draft so that Armstead will be able to move back to the inside.
Kerry Hyder Jr.
The 49ers signed Hyder to a one-year deal during free agency, reuniting the veteran with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. While playing under the tutelage of Kocurek with the Lions, Hyder put together a strong campaign in 2016, finishing with eight sacks.
Hyder put together the best season of his career in 2020. Starting 14 games in place of Nick Bosa, Hyder would finish with 8.5 sacks and 49 tackles. Hyder’s best game came in Week 12 against the Los Angeles Rams when he was able to compile two sacks, hit quarterback Jared Goff four times, and recover a fumble
Keep or Release: Hard to keep
Bringing Hyder back for 2021 should be a priority for the 49ers, but with pass rusher becoming a premium position they may not be able or willing to spend what Hyder will command in free agency. While adding a pass rusher to replace Ford is a necessity, San Francisco must not fall into the same trap of giving big money for a single season like they did with Armstead.
Dion Jordan, Jordan Willis, Ziggy Ansah
This group has been lumped together because they were only on the active roster in 2020 as the result of the injuries to Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.
Jordan spent training camp with the 49ers, but was released during final roster cuts. With the expanded practice squads for teams in 2020 to help deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, the 49ers were able to keep him in the organization. Jordan would be promoted to the active roster following Bosa’s season ending injury. Jordan would finish the season with three sacks, the second-best total of his career.
Willis was acquired in a trade with the Jets before the trade deadline that saw 49ers send New York their 2022 6th round selection in exchange for Willis and the Jets 7th round pick in 2021. The 25-year-old would finish with a career high 2.5 sacks in only seven games with the 49ers.
The 49ers signed Ansah following the injury to Bosa in an effort to create depth. Ansah would last a total of 34 snaps before injuring his triceps and missing the remainder of the season.
Of this trio there is a possibility that both Jordan and Willis can be brought back to compete for a roster spot in 2021. Neither of the two will have much of a market in free agency, which would allow them to be brought back on low-cost deals.
Blair was on his way to having the best season of his career in 2019 before injuring his right knee while taking down Russell Wilson in a Week 9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers signed Blair to a one-year contract for 2020, but he never fully recovered from the knee injury and spent the entire season on Injured Reserve
Keep or Release: Likely time to move on
Blair is a talented depth piece when healthy, however that hasn’t been the case for the majority of Blair’s career. In five seasons with San Francisco, Blair has played a full season only twice.
*All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com and sports-reference.com
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