April 19, 2024
The 49ers' defensive line needs yet another big-time addition if it hopes to lead the franchise over the Super Bowl hump.

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers are picking up the pieces from their latest Super Bowl loss. And more pieces obviously are needed for their next championship attempt this year.

Priority No. 1 should be at defensive end, where it has essentially been since the day coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over in 2017.

A year ago, they had to lock up Nick Bosa to the NFL’s richest contract for a defensive end, and they got that done even after splurging in free agency on another defensive lineman, Javon Hargrave. This franchise wants its defensive line to dictate things, though that backfired on the final drive of the 2023 season.

Mind you, Brock Purdy seemingly has solved their quarterback crisis, so the 49ers must maximize their greater financial stakes on the defensive line. Otherwise, Patrick Mahomes just might zoom past them for a third straight Lombardi Trophy and his fourth in six years with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Here is a closer look at what the 49ers are working with:

UNDER CONTRACT

Nick Bosa ($14.7 million on cap), Austin Bryant ($985,000), Robert Beal Jr. ($976,245), Ernest Brown ($985,000), Sam Okuayinonu ($915,000)

FREE AGENTS

Chase Young, Clelin Ferrell, Randy Gregory, Sebastian Joseph-Day

2024 PLAN

Under their fourth defensive coordinator in five years, the 49ers will want to get the most out of their best asset, Bosa. As usual, they’re scrambling to find a starting defensive end to anchor the side opposite Bosa. The dream move would be to trade for Joey Bosa, but that seems far-fetched financially for what the Chargers would demand. Trading for Young last October provided flashes — both good and bad — but Nick Bosa has campaigned for his return, which likely only happens on a short-term, prove-it deal.

Bosa, two days after the season finale, said: “The more rushers the better. We had a great group this year.” What would make 2024 greater, he noted, was having linemen who spent the whole offseason and camp in the 49ers’ system so they could be full-go in Week 1.

Keeping Ferrell would be fine, but the 49ers need great to bring out the best in this high-paid unit. Drake Jackson and Robert Beal need to make their move as homegrown prospects. There won’t be enough coin to chase Carolina free agent Brian Burns. They’ll likely stick to their routine of signing a once-acclaimed veteran looking to reboot his career under Kris Kocurek’s mentorship.

Odds are they’ll use their top draft pick on a defensive lineman for the seventh time in 10 years. The 49ers are to draft at No. 31 overall, which would be their first pick in the first round since their 2021 gamble on Trey Lance. With potentially 11 draft picks, the 49ers should use a high one on a defensive end, unless they can corner the free agent market on a veteran gem. Or, heck, just lure J.J. Watt out of retirement.

2023 REVIEW

There just wasn’t enough juice in this rotation to justify the financial squeeze the 49ers invested in this unit. Bosa’s reign as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year ended with his production dipping (10 ½ regular-season sacks, 35 quarterback hits). It wasn’t a sub-par year for Bosa, however, and he led the Super Bowl pressure against Patrick Mahomes, up until a fourth-down escape on the Chiefs’ winning drive.

Like Bosa, Javon Hargrave made All-Pro and Pro Bowl, but the 2023 free agent prize proved sporadic. Arik Armstead’s Year 9 was hindered by a foot issue (plantar fasciitis) and a November knee injury (meniscus tear). Javon Kinlaw had his best season (20 games, 3.5 sacks) in a reserve capacity.

Ferrell was a relative bargain (one year, $2.5 million) as a 17-game starter, up until a knee injury in the regular-season finale. Jackson’s three-sack effort in Week 1 was a mirage and a midseason knee injury ended his year. Trades for Gregory and Young were necessary – and not too costly — but neither panned out in the end.

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QUOTE NO. 1

“I couldn’t really look anybody in the eye. I could have done more. Everybody could have done more. It hurts. It will hit in waves. That’s life.” – Bosa, Super Bowl LVIII postgame podium

QUOTE NO. 2

“I was really proud of our defense and the way they competed in this last game. I think that looked like I envisioned it looking. We were getting after them.” – Lynch, two days after Super Bowl LVIII

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