No team in the NFL does as good a job of stockpiling edge-rushers as the San Francisco 49ers. Their defensive success depends upon rotating waves of versatile and dynamic linemen in and out of games.
Talent is the key, but it works as much because of the depth at defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ disposal. Nick Bosa and Samson Ebukam can wreck offenses from the edges, while Arik Armstead dominates inside, but the Niners entered this offseason needing some new blood up front after Dee Ford was released and Arden Key and D.J. Jones found new homes in free agency.
Fortunately, the 49ers’ search for fresh options appears to have yielded a potential star. Ryans has been impressed enough to praise the rookie for his “God-given ability.”
Top Rookie Primed to Thrive
Drake Jackson was the first player drafted by the Niners this year, although general manager John Lynch had to wait until the second round to make the selection. The 49ers didn’t have a first-round selection because of the deal that swapped three first-rounders for the right to draft quarterback Trey Lance third overall in 2021.
Giving up a first-round choice is always a high price to pay, but the 49ers won’t care if Jackson is as good as advertised. The former USC standout earned the approval of his coordinator after the 49ers played the Minnesota Vikings on the road in preseason.
Ryans was effusive after Jackson created four pressures against the Vikes, including one following a slip out of his stance, per David Lombardi of The Athletic: “Drake is unique in a way that he still finds a way, like even if he’s falling, he’s still working his way to the quarterback and for him to slip on that pressure and still affect the quarterback. Most guys, they don’t have that type of athletic ability. And that’s what I call God-given ability that some guys have and Drake, he has that. It’s not something that you coach or teach.”
If Jackson delivers on the promise he showed in exhibition games, the 49ers will continue to boast the pass-rush depth that’s the envy of most of the league.
Quality Depth Vital for 49ers Best Position Group
Ford rarely justified the $85.5 million contract he got from the Niners in 2019, but he was still a former top-25 pick with a solid pedigree for getting around the edge. When Ford’s sack numbers fell, Key picked up the slack by logging 6.5 QB takedowns, 3.5 more than Ford managed.
Key’s ability to win outside and along the interior expanded the rush games, stunts and twists Ryans could call. His greater involvement in the rush over the second half of the season was one of the catalysts behind the 49ers late run to the playoffs:
In a similar way, Jones’ performances playing over center helped Armstead successfully transition from end to defensive tackle. Neither Jones nor Key were stars like Bosa and Armstead, but both were vital in helping Ryans’ defense work, making their departures to the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, significant losses for this scheme.
Multiple options are what makes this unit tick, so Jackson has to be the player who recorded five sacks, eight tackles for loss and an interception during his final season with the Trojans.
The early signs are promising Jackson will exceed that level of production as a rookie. If he does, the Niners’ pass rush will be even more effective than the rampaging group good enough to notch 48 sacks a season ago.