How the 49ers front office hit the jackpot while rebuilding their defensive line
Since taking office in January 2017, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have made no secret of their belief in building a strong defensive line capable of harassing opposing quarterbacks as a priority. We have seen this team spirit fueling a super bowl place in 2019, when an incredibly talented team were objectively led by one of the best forward-fours the NFL has ever seen.
Sadly, nothing lasts forever in this league, and the high octane defensive line that led to so much success was doomed to drop a few coins over time. It played out much sooner than anyone would have liked, as soon half of that once-dominant unit was no longer part of the equation. DeForest Buckner moved before 2020 nfl draft, and Dee Ford has struggled to stay on the pitch for the past two seasons due to a string of injuries.
So now the 49ers front office was faced with an almost impossible task. They replaced the production of two bowl pro caliber players with limited space and draft capital to acquire the players they would ultimately need to fill that void. A great demand for any organization, but a challenge that the brass of the 49ers not only took head on, but absolutely wiped out the park with acquisitions that produced a significant return on investment.
While the 49ers don’t have the same level of high-end defensive line talent that propelled them to great heights a few seasons ago, they now possess a massive amount of above-average depth that has manifested itself in an extremely efficient spin that sends wave after wave of rushing fierce passes to opposing quarterbacks. Let’s take a closer look at these acquisitions and how they’ve evolved since joining the 49ers.
Key to the Ardennes
I start with Key because aside from the clear impact he had on this team, I think he best illustrates the type of player the 49ers are looking for with this low risk / high reward strategy that they have deployed. At 6’5,240 pounds, Key is an exceptional athlete who spent the first three years of his career with the Raiders after being drafted by LSU in the 3rd round of the 2018 draft.
It was as if Key never really found the right fit with the Raiders, as his most productive season came in his rookie year when he registered 31 presses and a sack. Numbers Key has already surpassed in his freshman year at San Francisco, despite fewer rushed passing attempts than in his first season. Key is exactly the kind of athlete the 49ers are willing to bet on, banking on defensive line coach Kris Kocurek’s ability to get the best out of such a physically gifted player.
So far, it’s a bet the 49ers have won, as Key has not only provided a huge boost on the rim, but has become a destructive force as a passer on the inside. Since a concerted effort was made to use Key on the inside around Week 10, Key has averaged three presses per game and recorded a sack in 6 of those eight games. Key’s ability to disrupt a game from anywhere on the defensive line has been a boon this season, especially when you factor in how little he counts in the salary cap this season.
Key signed a one-year, $ 1,045,000 pre-season contract, representing just less than one percent of the 49ers’ overall salary this season (0.53 percent to be exact). That’s beyond incredible value considering that Key is second on the team for sacks (7) and tied for third for pressure generated (32).
This kind of value at this price is a major win for any front office, and you can be sure Key’s services won’t be as cheap when he signs his next contract this offseason. Key’s career year also sends a clear message to all potential free agents going forward. Suppose you are looking to rebuild your worth as a defensive lineman. In this case, there might not be a better destination in the entire league than coming to the 49ers to work with Kocurek and assistant defensive line coach Darryl Tapp.
I’ve written a lot on Ebukam lately, and for good reason. He’s been as big of an impact as anyone on the squad in recent weeks and has achieved a total of 180 in production compared to early returns in the first half of the season. After a slow start, Ebukam has now recorded one sack in four straight games while also registering at least four taps in each of those contests.
While Ebukam was by no means a ‘splash’ signing, his acquisition certainly garnered a lot of attention during the offseason when the 49ers signed him to a two-year, $ 12 million contract (with 5 millions guaranteed). However, as I noted before, Ebukam’s slow start can be attributed to a number of factors.
The two main reasons being that he was pushed into a new role in a new program which is hugely different from what he was asked to do in his career before joining the 49ers, and the other was playing because of ‘a knee injury he suffered in the preseason, which clearly lingered throughout the first part of the season.
While Ebukam’s services aren’t offered at the same discounted rate as Key’s, the 49ers have still managed to secure massive value for a player who is only 1.9% of the salary cap this season. Ebukam is ranked 3rd on the team with 6 sacks and tied for 3rd with 32 pushes, and while his late season push is indicative of what he can do at full power after familiarizing himself with the program, its increased cap next season will be worth every penny too.
I would also like to add that the contract was also extremely favorable for the team, as the 49ers prepared well to move away from Ebukam after the first season in case the signing does not work. Additionally, with a cap of just 1.75million in 2022, the 49ers could have severed ties with Ebukam without serious consequences from a salary cap perspective. (Fortunately, I don’t see this as a problem due to his play in the home stretch, but the flexibility built into the contract needs to be recognized).
Willis was acquired mid-season in 2020 from the New York Jets as well as a 7th round pick in exchange for a 2022 6th round pick by the 49ers. Willis was a player whose athleticism has always stood out and whose physical features are much more evident than a refined bag of rushing moves. It was the first ‘low risk / high reward’ move that generated a positive return after the 49ers scrambled to find edge rushers after losses to Dee Ford and Nick Bosa at the start of the season.
Willis recorded 3 sacks for the 49ers in 2020, each of them entering a game that saw him register 13 or fewer snaps. The potential was clearly there, as Willis possesses the natural speed and curvature to excel on the edge in the Wide 9 pattern frequently used by the 49ers. Obviously, a 6-game suspension to open the 2021 season (for a positive PED test) was far from ideal, but the fact that the 49ers kept a deep chunk on the roster despite that should tell you what. point they like Willis.
For the cost (essentially a swap of choices in different drafts) and the fact that his role is mostly in a rotational capacity (Willis has averaged 9.7 snaps per game this season), the value has been a net positive for them. 49ers. Willis has also warmed up lately, registering a sack in each of the 49ers’ last two games.
The most recent of these ‘low risk / high reward’ acquisitions, Omenihu, was acquired through the Houston Texans just ahead of the 2021 trade deadline. Like Willis, Omenihu was acquired for a 6th round draft pick in a future draft (2023), a pattern which suggests the 49ers are more willing to take their chances by developing a player on whom they have NFL tape, rather than the roll of the dice that comes with an end of day 3 pick on an unproven college player.
While Omenihu didn’t produce the immediate returns of the aforementioned players, he still fits the athletic profile that gave the 49ers the success of the above group. At 6’5,280 pounds, Omenihu offers tremendous versatility due to his size, which has been on display on several occasions where he has blown up running games around the line of scrimmage.
He has yet to record a sack as a 49er and only has 9 taps out of 73 assists snaps, but despite that, patience needs to be exercised before drawing any conclusions about Omenihu’s effectiveness in the game. the present and the future with this team. A little more time to develop with Kocurek and Tapp might be just what Omenihu needs to become a usable member of a deep pass rotation for the foreseeable future.
In conclusion, the 49ers have done a remarkable job working in the sidelines to surround their big players on the defensive line (Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead) with an above average group of contributors. Their philosophy of leveraging their coaching staff’s ability to develop undervalued players with more athleticism has been a major success so far and is something that is unlikely to change anytime soon as long as they do. have the proven product that is Kocurek guiding defensive linemen on this team.