By: Stewart Mathurin (@SoLockedIn)
Final Edit: (@Zachhernan)
The San Francisco 49ers are rolling out a new 4-3 defensive scheme this year under rookie defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (who previously coached the linebackers in Jacksonville). As we all know, the 49ers finished 2-14 last season and gave up historically bad rushing yards, so there aren’t many sure pieces on that defense. Most of the recent investments though have come on the defensive side of the ball, specifically the defensive line. The last three first-round picks were – Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas show the 49ers commitment to creating a stout defensive line.
Arik Armstead is now entering his third season with high hopes and expectations. He has been hampered by injuries the past two seasons, so we’ve yet to see his best efforts. Armstead will be given the first shot at claiming the LEO position in this new defensive alignment. If you don’t know already, the LEO position is preserved for the team’s best pass-rusher, so it’s easy to see why I’m so excited to see him in this position.
Per Pro Football Focus, Armstead led all 3-4 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity in 2016, finishing ahead of the likes of Calais Campbell (who Arik drew pro-comps to upon entering the league) and Ra’Shede Hageman. Imagine what Arik can do when 100% healthy and on the field for extended periods of time. Although he is not the prototypical size (height or weight) for the position, he can try to emulate the successes of those like Atlanta’s Vic Beasley and Seattle’s Cliff Avril. Armstead can line up in the LEO in obvious pass-rushing situations/base defense and then kick inside with Thomas and/or Buckner the rest of the time.
Per Peter King’s MMQB, via Jared Dubin from CBS Sports, there has been a steady increase from 2008-2015 in the percentage of defensive backs being on the field. Starting at 43.4% in 2008 and rising as high as 63.4% in 2015. In that case, it would leave Armstead playing as the team’s LEO for just about 40% of the snaps, while spending the other 60% as an interior defensive lineman.
Now moving on down the line, taking us to fourth year defender Aaron Lynch. In my opinion, Lynch looks like the best fit at the LEO position in terms of his build – 6′ 5″, 270 lbs. Look for the possibility of Lynch replacing Armstead on passing downs (or even permanently). When you add in the former fifth-round pick, who came into the league with 14 sacks in his first three seasons, there is some hope for a noticeable improvement from this young, but talented defense. Saleh has previously said Lynch will be playing with his hand in the dirt more this season, which was his original position in college.
On the other hand, Aaron Lynch has suffered from being overweight and disciplinary issues in the past (and possibly even showing up to camp overweight again this season). This year also happens to be a contract year for Lynch, so it cannot be understated how vital it is for him to come out and really have a breakthrough season. He was not drafted by this regime and they have shown no tolerance for lack of hunger and fight in their players.
We’ve all been waiting for Lynch to take his game to the next level, after all his first two seasons were very impressive. He looked like a genuine pass-rush threat with a combined total of 12 sacks in two years. Unfortunately, last season Lynch suffered through injuries and dealt with a PED suspension which combined sidelined him for nine games. All of these factors played a major role in is measly sack totals – just 1.5 sacks, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
All in all, this is a make it or break it for both young defenders Armstead and Lynch. I’m keen and excited to see how they can react to this elevated level of internal competition and this new regime. If they are able to produce as high as expected, this defense can make a quick rise to one of the top of the NFC. With Rashard Robinson, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster, plus many more, there is justified hope for the defense to be elite very soon. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the NFC West currently does not have the best offensive lines by far (think of the likes of Seattle & L.A.).
Hopefully, the young guns are able to bring an angry, eager, physical mindset and get to work on becoming the next great 49ers defense. As the excitement of a new season accumulates, let’s hope this year provides the team with some major building blocks on defense – starting with these two young studs.
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