As per last year, I’ll be sharing projections for every team in the NFL. I use past production in specific roles for each team’s scheme to work out realistic production profiles. You can see how accurate I was in 2017 in my IDP Projection Marking series.
Only the Bengals played more defensive snaps than the 49ers in 2017. For most of the year, the 49ers offense was pretty awful (remember Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard combined for 11 starts). That doesn’t always correlate with defensive volume but in this case, it did. The 49ers defense played a lot.
They also had maybe the worst set of defensive injuries in the league (the Colts were close). Only three defenders who started week one were NOT injured. Those starters missed approximately 67 of a potential 165 weeks between them through injury. As a comparison, the Jaguars missed three starter weeks. Injuries absolutely crippled this unit which was a huge part of why they were a bad team – before Jimmy Garoppolo rode into town to save the day of course.
The defensive coordinator is Robert Saleh who comes from the Pete Carroll/Gus Bradley/Dan Quinn coaching tree. 2017 was his first year as a coordinator and he spent it transitioning from a 3-4 front to his favored system. This year, they should all be better purely through familiarity.
DeForest Buckner is a very strong bet to lead all tackles in playing time this season. His 1,870 snaps lead all tackles over the past two seasons. The only player to come close was Ndamokung Suh. Third place was Dontari Poe and Buckner essentially played around three full games’ worth more than him.
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The 49ers did play an abnormally high number of total snaps in 2017, but Buckner has shown the ability to stay on the field through college and as a pro. His high % of snaps should cover for any drop in team volume. And as we know, playing time is the number one indicator of IDP points at any position. Buckner’s elite ability is simply the icing on the cake.
Next to Buckner should be Earl Mitchell. He’s far more of a run stopper and commensurately a far less appealing IDP.
That resulted in just four sacks and 45 pressures between them. Part of that was because the 49ers were behind so much and therefore defending the run. But part of it was just that neither was impressive as a pass rusher. To give some perspective, the two of them combined for fewer sacks and pressures than Matt Ioannaidis managed on his own. And he is in no way a good pass rusher.
Both Armstead and Thomas will hopefully improve (and stay fit) but neither is a natural edge-bender. They’re better options in tackle-heavy leagues but unlikely to be great options even there.
Reuben Foster somehow managed to get away with just a short ban after some very unsavoury accusations were made against him in the off-season. He’ll open the season suspended but should slot right into elite production as soon as he’s back. As a rookie, he showed us enough on the field that we can be confident he is who we thought he was – a sideline-to-sideline modern linebacker. He’s not in the elite tier of five or six linebackers but he’s just outside and he could reach it if he keeps himself out of trouble.
The second inside linebacker job is very much up for grabs. Malcolm Smith seems to be the current favorite but is not a good player and could easily lose out in camp or even have the job taken away in-season. The IDP world wants rookie Fred Warner to step right in but Brock Croyle is probably the next man up – albeit a far less exciting one. The coaching staff showed their belief in Croyle in 2017, giving him 645 snaps then a new contract.
Eli Harold should be the Sam here. He’ll see a bit more playing time but will not really be a startable IDP.
Richard Sherman is the new marquee name in the unit but he seems well past his best at this stage. His savvy, reputation and brain should make him an asset still but he’s unlikely to be a shutdown corner. This might help make him a better IDP as he’ll see more targets than in the past.
Ahead of him, however, will probably be Ahkello Witherspoon. He started the last nine games of 2017 and did well. He’s very gifted with a long frame and stride but he still looks like the weakest coverage link in the secondary.
Jimmie Ward is a bit of a mystery and could start at several positions but it seems he’ll be the first choice nickel DB early in the season. That’s unlikely to be a consistently productive IDP spot but there is a chance he could end up moving to another spot at some point in the season given his versatility. He’s not worth owning in most leagues right now but he’s definitely one to watch.
Safety was one of the hardest hit positions in terms of 2017 injuries. No one came out of it unscathed. This year the situation seems far clearer and given Robert Saleh’s schematic history the possibility of a standout strong safety is very real.
Jaquiski Tartt is the man in possession of the strong safety (Kam Chancellor) role which means he’ll play a ton in the box. Given the defensive pace we’ve seen from this team (and Kyle Shanahan’s teams in general), there’s only one standout inside linebacker on the team there is plenty of room for Tartt to have an excellent season.
Behind him, Adrian Colbert showed some promise over 532 free safety snaps in 2017. He should be avoided on most IDP rosters simply because his role prevents him being much of a factor. Out of the 91 safeties that played more than 250 snaps in 2017, Colbert ranked 85th with a tackle efficiency of 6%. The players around him were other dedicated deep safeties: Tashaun Gipson. Ricardo Allen, Malik Hooker, Duron Harmon.
DeForest Buckner. Buckner is a really good player but more importantly, he has a motor that almost no other players at his position can compete with. His efficiency combined with large volumes make him a star.
Solomon Thomas. It’s rare for players to transition to a new position at NFL level – the reason being it often doesn’t work very well. Thomas spent about 94% of all his snaps at end after playing mostly on the inside in college. He was as dominant a player against the run as we all expected him to be but that’s just not enough to set him apart. In Pro Football Focus’ Pass Rush productivity stat, he ranked 145th amongst edge players. He was level with Avery Moss, Ufomba Kamalu, and Gimel President.
Anyone who drafted him early in a 2017 rookie draft or startup will be hoping he can dramatically improve.
Jaquiski Tartt. His projection as the top safety in this article seems a little optimistic but the situation really is as good as it gets. Safety is a high-variance position with massive injury rates but if he can stay healthy, he could be a fantastic IDP asset.
This team is so exciting in 2018. The injuries were a massive problem in 2017 but also the transition from Chip Kelly to Kyle Shanahan was such a stark one it must have contributed. With the staff and players more settled and one of the more exciting quarterback situations in the league, the future is looking very bright for the 49ers.
Thanks for reading.
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