The San Francisco 49ers have two first-round draft choices heading into April’s draft, as well as up-and-coming young talent at numerous positions on the field. But since the prime years of 49er great Bryant Young came to an end a few years ago, the 49ers have lacked a true pass-rushing threat.
While defensive end Justin Smith more than earned his Pro Bowl appearance this season, his best asset comes in the ground game and being able to play every single down.
Smith has been an absolute stud for San Francisco, but he can’t generate a consistent pass rush by himself. And unfortunately, the remaining 49er defensive linemen leave much to be desired.
Now, by looking at the numbers, fans might think that San Francisco was more than able to generate a consistent pass rush, as they finished tied for third in the NFL with 44 sacks. However, 10 of those sacks came in the last two weeks of the season against the Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams.
In reality, when it comes to sack totals, the 49ers were in the middle of the pack, if not the lower third, for the majority of the season...and the same can be said for general knock downs/pressures of opposing quarterbacks.
Despite the final sack totals, the 49ers allowed quarterbacks Brett Favre, Matt Ryan, Donovan McNabb, Jay Cutler, and Aaron Rodgers all to throw over 300 yards against them this season. Meaning of all 10 contests outside of their division, the 49ers were torched for over 300 yards passing five out of 10 games.
Can part of that be blamed on the secondary? Certainly.
However, the lack of a consistent pass rush was the primary reason opposing quarterbacks were able to put up large numbers through the air. Against the Bears, for example, Jay Cutler wasn’t sacked one time and was hardly touched. Yet the 49ers' defense was still able to cause five interceptions.
While the secondary can still improve, the key problem for the 49er pass defense is the lack of consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Justin Smith’s fellow defensive lineman include Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald, Aubrayo Franklin, and Kentwan Balmer. These four simply do not generate enough of an push up front on non-blitzing situations.
Now, could the 49ers use one of their first day draft choices to help bolster their defensive line? Possibly. But two years ago they drafted Balmer late in the first round, and he has yet to make an impact.
Most NFL stars don’t succeed right out of the shoot, and nobody can truly know if the best defensive end available (when the 49ers select No. 13 overall) will be able to make a difference.
But there are pass rushers available in both free agency and the trade market. A Julius Peppers would probably be the more expensive route if he ends up as a UFA, but trading for disgruntled New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora could be the answer.
Umenyiora, the two-time Pro Bowler lost his starting defensive end spot last season and was regulated to playing in strictly pass-rushing situations down the stretch.
Apparently, Umenyiora didn’t see eye-to-eye with last year’s defensive coordinator, Bill Sherman. Will new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell be able to reconcile the situation? Possibly.
But if the price is right, it might be best for both Umenyiora and the Giants to part ways.
The former second-round pick from the 2003 NFL Draft has two years left on a six-year, $41 million contract, which is less than what Justin Smith is making for the 49ers.
Umenyiora has proved he is an every-down defensive end, and having him play opposite Smith on the 49er line would be a huge boost to generating a consistent pass rush. Even when San Francisco only sends three men at the quarterback, the trio of Umenyiora, Smith, and Franklin ought to be able to create a strong push up front.
Now what would it take to trade for a player who has averaged more than a half sack per game in his career? Well, best case scenario, the 49ers could offer outside linebacker Manny Lawson, or fellow outside linebacker Parys Haralson, along with a second-round draft choice.
If that isn’t enough to swing a deal, then using one of their first-round choices for the upcoming draft and either Lawson/Haralson should be able to get the deal done.
Considering the 49ers have the up-and-coming Ahmad Brooks to fill in at outside linebacker, parting ways with either Lawson or Haralson wouldn’t be that big of a loss. Both Brooks and Umenyiora bring much more pass-rushing talent to the table than either of the current 49er starting outside linebackers.
Whichever the case may be, the 49ers must address the pass rush this offseason, preferably at the defensive end spot and not the “pass rushing outside linebacker” position.
San Francisco needs a pass rushing-threat who doesn’t have to worry about dropping into coverage and guarding play-making tight ends and running backs. A perfect answer to that is an every-down pass rushing defensive end who can also stop the run.
If not Umenyiora, other trade possibilities would be the best way to go considering that the player they receive will be under contract and be a proven commodity. Free agent options will garner big contracts and rookies will be unproven. Therefore, the trade market is the best way to go.
Just by looking at the teams in this year’s postseason, we can see how important an effective pass rush is for success. The Vikings, Saints, Colts, and Cowboys are the best examples of how a great pass rush can disrupt even the greatest offenses.
Remember how Umenyiora’s Giants were in the face of Tom Brady all Super Bowl long two years ago? New York’s impressive pass rush shut down arguably the greatest offense in the history of the game.
What else needs to be said?
The 49ers will need a better pass rush if they want to return to their glory days.
Owner Jed York and GM Scot McCloughan need to get to work and find their team that big-time defensive end. If they do, they might actually have a chance to win in the postseason game if they get there.
If they don’t, whichever postseason quarterback they face will almost assuredly shred them to pieces.
This article was originally published at Nfltouchdown.com.
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