The San Francisco 49ers ended the 2017 regular season on about as high of a note as a team could get. After insertingJimmy Garoppolo into the starting lineup after a mid-season trade, the 49ers won the last five games on their schedule. With Garoppolo, the 49ers offense took off, moving from 21st to 12th in yards per game. Their defense, however, did not experience a similar ascension. The 49ers finished the year as the 26th ranked defense in terms of DVOA. While the defense has stars such as Richard Sherman, Reuben Foster, and DeForest Buckner, several other players will need to make a significant impact. There are three players that could step up in order to have a Garoppolo-esque turnaround on the defensive side of the ball.
Three San Francisco 49er Defenders Poised to Make Impacts
When Kyle Shanahan pegged Robert Saleh to be his defensive coordinator, it was apparent what the blueprint was for the defense. The 49ers would try to mimic the Seattle Seahawk’s 4-3 Under that led them to back-to-back Super Bowl berths. There are many key elements to that style of defense. Perhaps the most important piece is the free-safety, and Adrian Colbert is slotted into that role.
Colbert is exactly what the 49ers are looking for at the position. He possesses a large 6’2” frame to go with electric speed. He is able to use these gifts to deliver enormous hits. On top of that, he has tremendous instincts, and has a knack for making plays. All of his tools were on display with an incredible pass break-up against the New York Giants in the 49ers first win of the season.
The 49ers will need Colbert to continue the flashes he showed in 2017. An eraser-like safety on the backend will allow the cornerbacks to play closer to the line, and jam receivers. It will also allow the other safety to come into the box and support against the run. If the 49ers defense is to make a big turn-around, Colbert will need to become the next incarnation of Earl Thomas.
Not too long ago, the 49ers had arguably the best linebacker corps in the league. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman formed a fearsome tandem. Now, a new wave of linebackers is ready to take up the mantle. Foster appears destined for stardom and is an integral part of this defense. The linebacker lining up beside him, however, will need to make an impact.
Malcolm Smith appears to be in line to start at the Will linebacker. He is very familiar with the Seattle style defense, having played on the Seahawks championship team. Smith is a prototypical new-age linebacker that Saleh covets because he is an asset in pass coverage.
Though Foster does not appear to be facing any jail time due to his myriad of offseason legal issues, he may still face a suspension. In that time, rookie Fred Warner may start opposite Smith. The 49ers spent a third-round pick on Fred Warner, and there is a lot to be excited about his prospects. It cannot be understated the type of impact a veteran like Smith could have on the seasoning and success of a rookie like Warner, especially with Warner forced to play so early. Smith’s play not only makes him valuable, but his veteran presence and knowledge do as well.
One of the most glaring holes on the 2017 49ers was their lack of a pass rush. Elvis Dumervil led the team in sacks, totaling 6.5. No other player had above three sacks. Dumervil no longer plays for the 49ers. In order to turn this defense around, a consistent pass rush needs to emerge.
One potential candidate to step up is Cassius Marsh. Marsh was acquired at midseason after being waived by the New England Patriots. When the 49ers failed to draft a pure pass rusher in the draft, Shanahan’s reasoning was: “you’ve got to be pretty good to beat out Marsh.” While Marsh hasn’t had a ton of success in his career, the 49ers are very confident in him that he can excel in Dumervil’s vacated role.
Marsh will have a lot of help thanks to the strength of the rest of the defensive front. Buckner’s presence will command double-teams, allowing for favorable matchups for Marsh. Marsh getting the quarterback, whether it be from the LEO or SAM linebacker positions, could improve this defense instantly.
The Last Word
A lot of things need to go right for this 49ers defense to take a huge step in the right direction this year. Many players need to take a leap forward. Colbert patrolling the middle of the field is exactly the type of safety that can take this defense to another level. Smith’s mentorship and pass-coverage ability elevate an incredible linebacker group. Marsh generating pressure off the edge is the last piece to the puzzle. These three impact players, paired with the proven stars, could result in the 49ers becoming a great all-around team, and competing for a Super Bowl sooner rather than later.
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