If you were to poll a random sampling of NFL fans on which team had the best pass rush during the 2019 season, I would wager that no team would get more votes than the San Francisco 49ers. Saying as much isn’t a difficult argument to make.
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San Francisco’s 39.2% pressure rate as a team ranked third in the NFL behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, and the 49ers were able to accomplish that while blitzing just 21.8% of the time — the 27th-highest rate in the NFL. With players along the defensive line such as Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford, the 49ers didn’t have to send the blitz. The four-man rush could get home just fine by itself.
The question for 2020 becomes whether they can be similarly effective after trading away Buckner this offseason. While we liked the return of the 13th overall pick for San Francisco, the loss of Buckner isn’t inconsequential. Among 92 interior defenders with 1,000 or more defensive snaps over the past three seasons, Buckner ranked 14th in overall PFF grade. If you stretch back one more year to include his rookie season in 2016, the only interior defender with more combined sacks and hits than Buckner’s 81 is Aaron Donald. That number overstates his impact as a pass-rusher by a bit, but Buckner was a player who offensive lines had to respect — capable of pushing the pocket and putting the quarterback on the turf.
Despite that, I believe the 49ers’ pass rush is in a better spot heading into next season than it was a year ago, even with all of its success in 2019.
Reason 1: Buckner’s replacement was the best interior pass-rusher in the 2020 NFL Draft
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Javon Kinlaw is going to be better than Buckner as a rookie because that is a lie. What I am going to say is that Kinlaw can be better than Buckner — he is certainly not just any mediocre replacement for what Buckner provided to the defense.