At long last, football is almost here. With the preseason less than a month away, the 49ers are gearing up for the climax of their offseason program: training camp. With everyone in the building together starting July 26, San Francisco will have a chance to complete the last few items on its offseason checklist.
July and August practices will go a long way in determining who makes the team and what roles certain players play. The defensive end group will be an extremely competitive unit, with more NFL-caliber players than there are roster spots available.
One of the defensive end spots is set in stone: Pro Bowler Nick Bosa will be back and will continue to be one of the league’s best quarterback hunters. The biggest question for him this offseason is whether or not he gets an extension. If so, he will likely join Rams star Aaron Donald as the only defensive players in the NFL to make more than $30 million per year.
However, Bosa will need a bookend and 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek likes to rotate his players frequently. The defensive line might be the deepest unit on the 49ers’ roster, and everyone who makes the team will get a chance to play. So who makes the team, and what is the hierarchy of those who do?
One candidate to start opposite Bosa is Samson Ebukam, an athletic former Ram who came on strong at the end of last season as he adjusted to his role with San Francisco. After just one sack in the first 12 games last year, Ebukam had five and a half in his last eight, including the playoffs. If he can carry that momentum into training camp, he should be the favorite to start.
Another intriguing option is Kerry Hyder, who struggled as a Seahawk last year but led the 49ers in sacks in his previous stint with the team the year before. He has history with Kocurek, and could be a good bet to improve now that he is back in a scheme he is comfortable with. He could also be a candidate for the role Arden Key played last season before departing for Jacksonville, rushing from the interior on passing downs alongside star defensive tackle Arik Armstead.
The biggest wildcard of the group is likely second-round rookie Drake Jackson out of USC. Jackson was the 49ers’ first pick this year, and he has tremendous potential in Kocurek’s wide-nine defensive alignment because of his elite bend off of the edge. However, he slipped as far as the Niners in the draft because he is a raw prospect who could stand to add strength and a deeper pass rushing toolbox before he becomes a key contributor. One of the biggest questions for the unit will be how early Jackson is ready to play.
While he is not likely to start right off the bat, free-agent signing Kemoko Turay can provide additional pass-rushing pop to the rotation. Although he did not start a single game for the Colts last season, he finished with five and a half sacks as a situational rusher. If Turay can maintain that level of efficiency, he can make sure there is not too significant a drop-off when the starters are resting.
The unit is rounded out with a midseason addition from each of the last two seasons, Jordan Willis and Charles Omenihu. Both were playoff heroes last year, despite being backups. Charles Omenihu recorded a sack and a half against star Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith in a wildcard round win after Bosa left with an injury, and Willis blocked a Packers punt for the only 49ers touchdown of the game in the Divisional Round victory. Both are worthy of a roster spot, but there are only so many to go around. San Francisco will have to decide how many defensive ends it can make room for.
The other ends on the roster are veteran Dee Ford and former Alliance of American football player Alex Barrett. Ford has likely played his last snap as a 49er, and possibly as a player, due to numerous injuries. Barrett will likely end up back on the practice squad where he spent most of last season.
Week 1 Prediction
First-Team: Nick Bosa, Samson Ebukam
Second-Team: Kerry Hyder, Kemoko Turay
Third-Team: Charles Omenihu, Drake Jackson
Cut: Jordan Willis, Dee Ford, Alex Barrett