Sometimes, a player’s worth to a team goes far deeper than what’s on a stat sheet. From 2011-2013, the San Francisco 49ers finished in the top three every year in overall defense, and still managed to place 10th in 2014 even though they lost some key players to injury (or suspension). During that four year stretch, DE Justin Smith and DE Ray McDonald combined for 36.5 sacks, an average of a little over nine per season.
The total is a solid one for 3-4 defensive ends, but aren’t eye popping numbers by any means. In turn, to a casual observer, these two every down linemen may have been overshadowed by the likes of ILB Patrick Willis and ILB Navorro Bowman, who were flying all over the field making plays. They may have gotten lost in the shuffle to the person only seeing OLB Aldon Smith recording 33.5 sacks in his first 32 games. However, to someone who truly understands football, the contributions of Smith and McDonald were obvious. In short, the defense couldn’t have functioned nearly as well without them.
Now Willis and Bowman are all-time linebackers, and would have made an impact no matter what, but they can’t make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage without the guys upfront doing their jobs. In the absence of Smith and/or McDonald, what was a tackle for no gain may have happened four or five yards down field instead. Someone like (Aldon) Smith, wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get to the quarterback so many time without (Justin) Smith doing the dirty work to allow him a path. You see, these two made the defense tick in a number of ways, and it hasn’t been the same without them.
To his credit, GM Trent Baalke seems to understand this, which is most likely the reason he spent his last two first-round picks on DE Arik Armstead (2015) and DE DeForest Buckner (2016).
Armstead was originally seen as a bit of risky pick because, while he had incredible physical tools, the 6’8, 280 pound lineman was still raw. He was in every way a boom or bust selection for a team that really couldn’t afford to miss. If early returns are any indication however, San Francisco may have hit big time with Armstead.
In just 384 snaps during the 2015 season, Armstead recorded 38 total pressures. According to Pro Football Focus, his 12.3 pass rushing productivity score was the highest of any 3-4 end who played at least 155 snaps in pass rushing situations. It’s a safe bet that Armstead will improve dramatically from the two sacks he registered last season, and also provide more opportunities for his teammates.
Buckner was seen as a much safer pick than Armstead, and was widely regarded as the most NFL ready defensive player this year’s draft. Buckner ended his final collegiate season as the highest rated interior defense player in the nation, with a plus-73 grade per PFF. It was the highest figure in recent years and greatly exceeded that of the 2015 number six overall pick, DE Leonard Williams. Buckner is an athletic 6’7 and 290 pounds, which is a scary combination for any offensive lineman trying to stop him. He should make an impact immediately whether it’s stopping the run or rushing the passer. PFF mentions that teams have used players like Buckner in multiple spots to wreak havoc, and you can bet the 49ers will employ a similar approach.
Now while the arrow is pointed up for these two behemoths, they still have to go out and prove their worth and durability on the field like Smith and McDonald did for years. The organization and it’s fans must be patient as Armstead and Buckner learn their craft, knowing that the sky’s the limit for them. While it may be unfair to compare them to their predecessors at such an early stage, it’s safe to say the future of the defensive line is in good hands.