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San Francisco 49ers

49ers 2018 Positional Breakdown: Defensive End / Edge Rusher

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49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas
© Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

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:

Offense: Running Back | Quarterback | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Line

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:

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.

Chris Wilson is the Lead Writer for Locked on 49ers, a FanRag Sports network partner. You may have seen Chris’ work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at FanSided, NinerNoise, 49erswebzone, Insidethe49 and others. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgawilson.

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San Francisco 49ers

Five Matchups to Watch in Preseason Clash with Houston

Jon Chik

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The race is on for starting gigs, playing time and roster spots, and the San Francisco 49ers’ second game of the preseason against the Houston Texans provides no shortage of intriguing matchups. Here are five to keep an eye on when the Niners embark into NRG Stadium.

Jimmy G vs. the Houston defense

Starting with kind of a broader battle here, as Jimmy Garoppolo steps onto the gridiron against a Houston defense that Pro Football Focus ranks eighth against the run and fifth in pass-rushing coming into this season. The unit boasts a plethora of household names and bona fide playmakers who can get after the quarterback, but the 25th-ranked secondary seemingly remains a weakness after struggling mightily in 2017.

We only got a brief glimpse at Jimmy G during last week’s home clash with the Dallas Cowboys, and the San Francisco signal-caller completed three-of-six passes for 34 yards, while his highlight of the night occurred when he stood in the pocket to absorb a big hit from stud defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and fired a strike to Marquise Goodwin for an 18-yard gain on third-and-10.

While Garoppolo fared well on his only series of the evening, he’ll likely play a bit deeper into Saturday’s clash with Houston, and if he can get passes away in a timely fashion, he could have his way with the Texans’ secondary.

Look for Jimmy to attempt at least one deep ball to Goodwin in the speedster’s mouth-watering matchup against Kevin Johnson, who ranked dead last among 120 qualified corners last season. Pierre Garcon, who is gradually building a rapport with Garoppolo after a slow start this offseason, also gets a good matchup against veteran Johnathan Joseph (the 64th-ranked cornerback with a grade of 67.4), and it would be a good sign if he and his quarterback show that they’re on the same page with a few connections in Week 2.

Jimmie Ward vs. DeAndre Hopkins

There are two reasons why we’re looking forward to this matchup.

One, Wednesday’s training camp fisticuffs.

Two, Jimmie Ward had a rough opener against Dallas, getting torched by third-round rookie Michael Gallup for a 30-yard touchdown and failing to keep up with Allen Hurns when he hauled in a short pass over the middle and hit the jets for a 13-yard gain on third-and-four.

Coming off a subpar performance, San Francisco’s “backup everything” needs to play much better if he wants to remain in the mix for significant regular season snaps and beat out K’Waun Williams for nickelback duties, and he’ll certainly be tested against Houston’s stable of dangerous pass-catchers, not the least of which is All Pro DeAndre Hopkins, who snagged 96 receptions for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017.

Even if he doesn’t line up directly opposite Hopkins (and PFF suggests the honor could fall to Ahkello Witherspoon), the two will still be on the gridiron together just three days after brawling in practice, and they could easily cross paths. Though they reportedly shook hands after each getting ejected from the joint practice, it’s impossible to know what will happen when the competitive juices once again start flowing.

Ward, who could see a good chunk of snaps since he’s entrenched in a multi-man battle for playing time, will be tested no matter who he’s covering, and he has a golden opportunity to all but erase the disappointments of the opener with a big-time performance against a squad that should boast a high-octane passing attack.

Richard Sherman vs. Will Fuller

Staying in the secondary, we move to the other side of the field where Richard Sherman could make his San Francisco debut in an interesting matchup against third-year man Will Fuller, who missed six games last season but still hauled in seven touchdowns while notching 28 receptions for 423 yards. While the abbreviated stat-line isn’t eye-popping, Fuller’s numbers are almost certain to spike with Deshaun Watson back in the fold, and he and the second-year quarterback will look to build a rapport at the expense of Sherman on Saturday.

Sherman’s San Francisco debut carries plenty of intrigue in and of itself, but given that he’s coming off last season’s Achilles injury and a hamstring ailment in training camp, a strong outing from the former Seahawk would alleviate some concerns from the Niner Faithful.

Kyle Shanahan may err on the side of caution and refrain from leaving Sherman on the field for too many snaps in a preseason game, but all eyes will be on the Niners’ prized free agent acquisition as he goes toe-to-toe with arguably one of the league’s most talented young wideouts. Even one or two pass breakups, a solid jam at the line or a sure-handed tackle in run support would go a long way to showing Sherman is healthy and good to go for the regular season.

Sherman isn’t a lock to dress Saturday after missing the preseason opener, but he was a full participant in San Francisco’s final open practice on Monday and in the two inter-squad practices with the Texans during the week, so here’s hoping Niner fans finally get to see him in game action.

Josh Garnett vs. the Houston defensive line

It’s sink or swim time for San Francisco’s 2016 first-rounder.

After missing two weeks of practice – somewhat to the befuddlement of Kyle ShanahanJosh Garnett was on the gridiron for some first-team snaps during Thursday’s practice in Houston.

Assuming he suits up Saturday, it’s not totally inconceivable that he’ll draw the start since Mike Person’s roster spot is looking more secure by the day and because the San Francisco coaches may want to see how the 24-year-old will hold up against starting-caliber players. If Garnett doesn’t start, then he’ll be under even more pressure to perform against Houston’s twos and threes.

With Person playing well enough to earn the starting nod for San Francisco’s preseason opener and Jonathan Cooper and Erik Magnuson also in the mix, Garnett’s place on the 53-man roster is tenuous at best, but he can certainly raise his stock with a strong performance against Houston’s stout front seven.

San Francisco’s offense vs. the crowd noise

San Francisco gets its first taste of football on the road on Saturday, and in a campaign where the Niners travel to thunderously loud outdoor stadiums such as Seattle, Arizona and Kansas City and open with a dome game in Minnesota, the Niners will have to learn to cope with deafening crowd noise.

Of course, the Houstonites may not be quite as jacked up and vocal for a preseason matchup as they would be for the regular season, but it’s good practice all the same.

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San Francisco 49ers

Podcast: Preseason Takeaways with Jon Chik

Brian Peacock

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© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Podcast for Thursday, August 16 

-Guest: Jon Chik of Lockedon49ers.com
-49ers offensive line performance vs Cowboys
-Why preseason games are awesome
-Adrian Colbert deserves more recognition
-Super Bowl picks

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San Francisco 49ers

Podcast: 49ers Sign Alfred Morris, Winky Wednesday Mailbag

Brian Peacock

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© Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Podcast for Wednesday, August 15 

-Guest: Nick Winkler
-Kyle Shanahan reunited with RB Alfred Morris
-LO49ers fantasy league name contest winner
-Mailbag covering 49ers gear, movie QBs and injuries

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