Over the offseason, we break down each of the San Francisco 49ers’ position groups for the upcoming 2018 NFL season. In this edition, we break down the defensive linemen who play on the outside — the defensive ends and edge rushers.
This is the eighth edition of our 49ers 2018 offseason positional breakdowns. Check out the rest of our position group breakdowns here:
Special Teams: Special Teams
Defense: Interior Line
The San Francisco 49ers were far from a complete football team in 2017, and their most glaring need — a lack of an outside pass rush — was mostly ignored by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan in both free agency and the 2018 NFL Draft. The 49ers had just one player log over three sacks in 2017 — edge rusher Elvis Dumervil — and the Niners’ brass chose to release the 34-year-old defender after his 6.5-sack season.
The 49ers will be forced to rely on the interior of their offensive line — led by defensive tackle DeForest Buckner — for quarterback pressure again in 2018, unless the team receives increased production from a group of mostly unproven defensive ends and edge rushers.
We’ll start our breakdown with the 49ers’ two starting defensive ends; these two players will rush from the outside on base downs, and will have the opportunity to provide pressure from the inside in obvious passing situations:
DE Solomon Thomas
Defensive end Solomon Thomas had a disappointing rookie season after the 49ers drafted the Stanford standout with the third overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Thomas finished the 2017 season with just three sacks despite playing twice as many snaps as any other defensive end on the 49ers’ roster.
While Thomas was respectable against the run in 2017, he was Pro Football Focus’ sixth-worst pass rusher among all eligible edge defenders. However, it’s far too early to call Thomas a first-round bust. Thomas missed a portion of the 49ers’ offseason program last season due to NFL rules, and was asked by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to learn multiple positions on the line during his rookie year. Look for Thomas — who improved over the course of the 2017 season — to continue that improvement in 2018.
DE Arik Armstead
Two years before selecting Thomas, the 49ers used their first-round draft pick on another defensive end, Oregon’s Arik Armstead. Unlike Thomas, Armstead’s issue has been a lack of durability that limited the defensive end to just 14 games over the past two seasons.
When healthy, Armstead is an excellent pass rusher, particularly when he kicks inside on passing downs:
Arik Armstead has been one of the most productive pass rushers among 3-4 defensive ends over the past two years. pic.twitter.com/QZEonjxfGr
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 21, 2017
Although the 49ers exercised Armstead’s fifth-year option for 2019, Armstead will need to remain healthy and productive in 2018 if he expects to collect on his $9 million option the following season.
EDGE Cassius Marsh
The 49ers are counting on Cassius Marsh, who has just six sacks in his four-year career, to take a major step forward in 2018. In February, Lynch and Shanahan invested in Marsh, signing the edge rusher to a two-year deal worth nearly $8 million. The 49ers originally signed Marsh last November after he was released by the New England Patriots during the final year of his rookie contract.
Although Marsh only recorded a pair of sacks over six games with the 49ers, he was effective when rushing the passer. Per PFF, Marsh logged 16 quarterback pressures in 135 pass rushing snaps, and ranked 25th in pass rushing productivity during his time in San Francisco last season. Marsh was less effective in New England, where he was asked to play a more active role in pass coverage and in the run game. Marsh was originally drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, who traded him to the Patriots prior to the 2017 season. In Seattle, Marsh was used as a situational pass rusher, and was an active member on special teams.
EDGE Jeremiah Attaochu
Early in free agency, the 49ers signed edge rusher Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year “prove it” deal worth up to $5.1 million, including $2.5 million in guaranteed money. Attaochu — a former second-round draft pick — spent four years with the Los Angeles Chargers, where he played outside linebacker, and recorded 10 sacks in 38 career games.
Attaochu’s best professional season came in his second year in the league, when he logged six sacks over 15 games. The edge rusher has struggled with injuries over the course of his career, missing 14 games over his first three seasons. Attaochu was injured again prior to the 2017 season, and was a healthy scratch for much of the year after his return. Georgia Tech’s all-time sack leader has the potential to be a force off the edge for the 49ers if he can remain healthy throughout the 2018 season.
DE Ronald Blair
The 49ers drafted defensive end Ronald Blair in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, after the lineman’s standout career at Appalachian State University. Blair, who has five career NFL sacks, played 16 games in a reserve role in 2016, before missing the majority of the 2017 season due to a thumb injury.
The 6-foot-2, 270 pound Blair has slimmed down from his 284 pound NFL Combine weight, and will likely be used as a versatile backup at both defensive end and edge rusher. Blair has shown flashes over his two-year career, particularly with his two-sack performance after a last-minute start against the New York Giants last season. Blair is a likely candidate to make the 49ers’ initial 53-man roster, particularly thanks to the exit of former 49ers lineman Tank Carradine.
DE Kentavius Street
Defensive end Kentavius Street — the 49ers’ fourth-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft — will be “red-shirted” in 2018 after injuring his knee during a pre-draft workout with the New York Giants. At 6-foot-2 and 285 pounds, Street played multiple positions on the defensive line for North Carolina State, including on both the inside and the outside of the line. Street projects as a “Big End” for the 49ers, after finishing his college career as the defensive end opposite one of the top pass rushers in college football, Bradley Chubb.
Potential Edge Rushers
In addition to the above listed players, the San Francisco 49ers have a number of outside linebackers who may be called upon to rush the passer on obvious passing downs. These linebackers — including projected starter Eli Harold, veteran Dekoda Watson, and second-year player Pita Taumoepenu — will be profiled in the next edition of our 49ers 2018 offseason positional breakdowns.
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