Sakamoto: Breaking down 49ers Starting Defensive Line

The San Francisco 49ers finally strapped on their helmets and shells in the team’s first full padded practice earlier this week. And while all eyes were on household names like LB NaVorro Bowman, WR Pierre GarΓ§on, and enigmatic rookie LB Reuben Foster, my main focus was solely on the team’s defensive line. 

In the game of football, it’s all about dominating the line of scrimmage from the inside/out. A stingy defense needs to win their battles up front. From pre-snap technique to leveraging their assignment, the defensive line is the first line of defense and must generate consistent pressure. Keyword “consistent.” We all seen flashes of these young players making a play here or there, but being consistent is the name of the game in the NFL. A culture that has quickly shifted toward that ideology under new defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina

The former seventh-round pick (No. 185) of the 1993 draft played with tenacity, passion, and high-motor for 17 NFL seasons. He was the ultimate over-achiever and today, he hopes to instill those traits in his players. 

A team that heavily invested three consecutive first-round picks on defensive line, the question remains, who will finally breakout in 2017? I believe that player to be second-year DT DeForest Buckner

Sakamoto: Why 49ers DT DeForest Buckner will make Pro Bowl in 2017

The 6-7, 291, behemoth defensive lineman racked up 73 tackles, 6.0 sacks, and two forced fumbles during his rookie season. His motor runs hot. He’s very powerful at the point of attack, and most importantly can rush the quarterback under DC Robert Saleh’s one-gap scheme. To sum it all up, I believe De-Fo will be a Pro Bowl type player in year two.

No longer is Buckner playing under a read-and-react scheme. Buckner will instead, be asked to get upfield vertically. In his rookie season, Buckner amassed 6.0 sacks, he hopes to add many more under the new scheme. 

Sakamoto: 49ers DE DeForest Buckner Displays Power In Front of Trent Baalke

“I personally want to get more sacks this year. My goal for myself is 10,” Buckner told beat writers. 

Coach Zgonina believes a big year is in store for his second-year player, echoing the new scheme should benefit Buckner’s skill set. “He’s a powerful guy,” Zgonina said. “I think he’s going to do well in this system. He’s just playing one gap. He’s not reading.”

49ers’ Draft Arik Armstead With 17th Pick In First-Round

However, Buckner isn’t the only player looking to have a big year under this new regime. All eyes are on third-year DE Arik Armstead and he knows it. The Oregon product has been dealing with a nagging shoulder last year, and the verdict is out if he can remain healthy for a full 16-game schedule. 

The potential is there for Armstead to succeed. However, I don’t believe he will bring much of a pass-rush presence from that all important ‘LEO’ position. In all honesty, I would rather have DE Elvis Dumervil start at the ‘LEO’ over Armstead. However, that doesn’t appear to be in the team’s plans. 

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At some point, the 49ers need to see what they have in their 2015 first-round pick (No. 17). But let’s look at it from a management point of view. If the team thought so highly of Armstead then why did they draft DE Solomon Thomas at No. 3? Why did they bring in 33-year old Dumervil? Because iron sharpens iron? I don’t think so.

Sure, the team needed depth at the position, but to draft a third defensive lineman in the first-round for the third consecutive season means they wanted insurance in case Armstead didn’t pan out. We all see Buckner’s potential, but Armstead hasn’t been healthy enough to showcase what he can do on a consistent basis–leaving management in a dilemma. 

Sakamoto: 49ers DE DeForest Buckner Displays Power, Rattles Tackle Sled! Arik Armstead Coming Along!

If Armstead can put together a strong camp, that may ease the team’s pass-rushing woes of year’s past. But that’s a big if, considering he’s never been regarded as a premier rusher. Which brings me to fourth-year DE Aaron Lynch. A player who quickly racked up 12.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons, Lynch only appeared in seven games last year while registering just 1.5 sacks. 

Can Lynch Mobb return to form in 2017? I believe he can, if he is given the opportunity to do what he does best. Rush the quarterback. A good coach will put his players in the best position to make plays. They adapt their scheme to fit the players strengths. I believe Saleh will give all of his players that opportunity. Outside of Dumervil and arguably OLB Ahmad Brooks, Lynch is the team’s best outside edge-rusher. 

Pass rushers are at a premium in the NFL. You can never have enough. We hear this all the time because it’s true. The 49ers need depth there. Lynch provides that security blanket. 

But so far, Lynch looks to be behind the eight-ball, as he has been taking second-team reps. Whether he will win the starting role is anyone’s guess, but so far, he has put together quite an impressive camp.

With the 49ers looking to bolster their pass-rush, they must first stop the run. A unit that ranked dead last in all major statistical categories associated with the run-game, they can only go up from here. The Niners defense allowed the most rushing yards per game (165.9), average yards per carry (4.8), and rushing touchdowns (25). It was downright embarrassing, frustrating, and demoralizing. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It was bad.

New 49ers GM John Lynch knew changes needed to be made. I asked Lynch if he purposely rebuilt the defense from the inside-out (front seven) rather than the outside-in (secondary). 

Sakamoto: 49ers GM John Lynch clearly rebuilding defense from inside/out

“We found some need areas that we wanted to do prior to the draft, [signed DT Earl Mitchell] and [OLB Malcolm Smith]…some were by design [free-agents] some were by circumstance [draft],” Lynch told me.

Shortly after signing Mitchell, Lynch gave his insights as to why he targeted the former Miami Dolphin. “As soon as Earl hit the open market, he became a priority for us to sign,” Lynch said. “A man of high character, he represents everything we want to be as a football team. Earl is a tone-setter who plays the game with a tremendous passion and the effort necessary to win in this league. We believe those qualities are contagious and will help to make our team stronger,” Lynch explained.

So there you have it. My predicted starting rotation along the defensive line will be DE Arik Armstead, DE Solomon Thomas, DT Earl Mitchell, and DT DeForest Buckner. Zgonina rolls with these starters and the depth behind them will be DE Elvis Dumervil, DT Quinton Dial, DT Ronald Blair, DT Chris Jones, and DE Aaron Lynch

What are your thoughts Forever Faithful? Provide your two cents and start the discussion…

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of NinerFans.com, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at ryan@NinerFans.com or call him at (408) 622-0996.

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