Unfortunately for the 49ers, there are reasons to believe the pass rush will take a step back in 2020. Subsequently, the secondary will follow suit.
Does replacing the consistent interior pass rushing of DeForest Buckner for the unknown Javon Kinlaw have something to do with it? Sort of. But the larger issue lies behind Dee Ford.
The 49ers are up against something I call the Dee Ford effect. Ford is the only pure speed rusher on the team, and it just so happens his speed completely rounds out the defense.
Let’s examine the 49ers splits with and without Dee Ford (playoffs included):
- With Ford-13 games / Without Ford-6 games (playing four or zero snaps).
- Points Per Game Allowed: 16.6 (with) / 25.8 (without)
- Differential: 9.2 less points given up with Ford
- Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 162.7 (with) / 213.6 (without)
- 50.9 less passing yards allowed per game with Ford
- Sacks Per Game: 4 (with) / 1.5 (without)
- 2.5 more sacks a game with Ford.
- Nick Bosa: 11 Sacks (with Ford) / 2 sacks (without Ford)
- 9 more sacks in total with Ford in uniform.
Ford clearly makes the 49ers defense far better with him on the field. I believe it is because Ford brings the element of speed, which no other 49er pass rusher can really match.
Now, if the 49ers are without Ford this upcoming season more than they were without him in 2019, then the defense will put up similar numbers to the “without Ford” splits listed above. This seems a likely scenario given Ford’s knee tendinitis and hamstring-injury history.
Putting up those kinds of “without Ford” numbers on defense will not help the 49ers championship chances whatsoever.
There is no depth at the speed rushing position, which is very worrisome. It is clear that Ford’s speed is the difference. The speed Ford possesses makes life easier for Nick Bosa, all the other pass rushers and the entire secondary.
It is a huge gamble not to have a speed rusher behind Ford. However, there is one on the market.
Enter Markus Golden.
Golden played for the New York Giants last season and registered 10 sacks, the second double-digit sack season of his career (12.5 with the Cardinals in 2016).
Golden played for less than $5 million last season, and may play for a similar number this year. With roughly $10 million in cap space post-draft, the 49ers have the financial ability to add an insurance policy behind Ford.
There is no such thing as too many pass rushers in the NFL. Getting to opposing quarterbacks is the most important thing a team can do on defense. We know the 49ers did a tremendous job of that last season, which is why they were as successful as they were.
The entire team benefited from the pass rush, but no unit benefited from the pass rush more than the secondary.
In 2018, the 49ers secondary allowed 233.2 passing yards per game. That number was good enough to place 11th in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Fast forward to 2019, and the 49ers secondary allowed a league best 169.2 passing yards per game.
Between 2018 and 2019, there were no flashy moves made to the secondary. The flashy moves were made up front with Ford and Bosa.
It is the same story again this off season. To the surprise of many, the 49ers did not draft a cornerback in this year’s draft.
The secondary could use more talent, especially if the pass rush takes a step back. Enter Eli Apple. Yes, he has a history of getting burnt, but he has tremendous upside. At 6’1”, he is the desired height of the ideal 49er corner. He also runs a 4.4 40-yard dash and is only 24 years old.
Adding Apple to compete for the outside corner opposite Richard Sherman could do no harm. It would be a low-risk, high-reward signing. The 49ers had good health at corner last year, but relying on Ahkello Witherspoon in big moments should Mosley or Sherman go down would be nerve-racking.
Adding Apple to the equation does nothing more than add competition, and make sure that vital spots on the defense are truly earned. If the 49ers continue to ignore the secondary, then they must add depth behind Ford.
Make no mistake, the 49ers secondary is good, not great. If it were truly great, the 49ers would have been your 2019 NFL Super Bowl champions.
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