Having a bad day? Get a defensive lineman. Need a pick-me-up? Acquire a defensive lineman. Lost a few games recently? Hurry up and trade for a defensive lineman! Is it a day that ends with a “y”? SEND ANOTHER DEFENSIVE LINEMAN HERE NOW!!!
Maybe Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch aren’t quite as maniacally single-minded as all that, but also: Maybe they are.
Let’s say this about the 49ers’ decision-makers in the wake of their acquisition of defensive end Chase Young from Washington at Tuesday’s deadline for a compensatory third-round pick: Shanahan and Lynch are consistent, they are committed, they are intently and very specifically focused and, yes, you can say that they’re more than a bit predictable. They don’t mind if you think that they’re predictable, because they believe there’s power in this kind of predictability.
Whether the 49ers are flying high, in trouble, fiddling around in the middle ground or just awake in the morning and conscious, their top two decision-makers concentrate a huge percentage of their thoughts and capital on loading up their defensive line. They have won and want to continue winning games almost wholly with a defensive line that overwhelms the opponent. They picture their team from the D-line out. They probably dream of pass rushers.
No doubt, Shanahan and Lynch have made big moves at other positions over the years, from the Christian McCaffrey deal last deadline to the infamous trade to acquire the pick that landed them Trey Lance. They do know that there are many other positions besides the D-line and some of them are even somewhat important.
However, other than quarterback, no other position affects all facets of the game like the D-line, and you can play four linemen at a time and you can only play one QB. So why not try to acquire as many good defensive linemen as possible? Young is a low-risk option — the reasons he didn’t even cost a second-round pick include his injury history and the fact that his contract is up after this season. But why not plug him in and see what happens with D-line coach Kris Kocurek, who, not stunningly, is the 49ers’ highest-paid position coach? Were the 49ers going to get a better player with that comp pick? Not likely. And the 49ers are desperate to win games starting with Nov. 12 (after this weekend’s bye) in Jacksonville, which a draft pick does not help.
This is, in a way, an expression of support for embattled defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. He hasn’t been perfect in his first 49ers season, but Lynch and Shanahan are signaling that Wilks will look a lot better with Young blasting over the right tackle every passing down. And not that there’s any doubt, but this is a nod to Brock Purdy, who started this season so well but has thrown four interceptions in the last two weeks, all late in the games with the 49ers needing a rally. Get Purdy into better situations and he’s just fine, Shanahan and Lynch are suggesting. You do that by winning games on the defensive front.
The 49ers don’t think they need to change how they operate. Shanahan and Lynch are showing that they believe they just need to be more of what they already are.
In Shanahan/Lynch Universe, if you have a dominant defensive front, that eases the pressure on the secondary and lets the linebackers fly to the ball without too many blockers in the way. The 49ers acquire expensive defensive linemen in the draft, free agency and, of course, trades. They stack them up on their depth chart. And then they want more. If you have a roaring D-line, you control games, which means you never have to go into panic mode on offense and you can play on some short fields after turnovers or three-and-outs.
Which led the 49ers to Tuesday’s trade deadline and an inevitable outcome once their D-line started looking droopy over the last few weeks. Of course, the 49ers acquired another former first-round pick, Randy Gregory, just a few weeks ago.
Practically, this is an admission that the rotation of Clelin Ferrell and most notably 2022 second-round pick Drake Jackson wasn’t producing up to expectations in the defensive end spot opposite Nick Bosa (Young’s old Ohio State teammate) and that Gregory is mostly a peripheral piece of the puzzle. But Lynch and Shanahan are good about making real decisions based on what they’re seeing, not on what they hoped when they drafted a player. And Jackson, however much they’ve pumped him up over the last few years, isn’t playing well. So he’s getting pushed way down the depth chart.
So the 49ers plan to plop Young on one side, Bosa on the other, and either Bosa’s sack total will start to quickly climb above the 3 he has now or Young will get a bunch (he already has 5) or everybody will.
Shanahan recently insisted that the three-game losing streak would have no effect on their deadline decisions, and I partly believe him. Even if the 49ers were currently 8-0 and destroying opponents every snap, I think they would’ve been quite interested in Young, just because he’s a talented guy who might light a fire under this D-line just in time for a second-half spree. But the losing streak sure did amp up the urgency, I’m sure.
You can never have enough talented pass rushers, and that is exceedingly true when you only have 18 sacks as a team through eight games and your team leader in this category is Jackson, who got all of them in the Week 1 demolition of the Steelers and has looked invisible and lost reps ever since.
Here are the former first- and second-round picks on the 49ers’ D-line currently:
Bosa: No. 2 overall pick 2019
Young: No. 2 in 2020
Ferrell: No. 4 in 2019
Javon Kinlaw: No. 14 in 2020
Arik Armstead: No. 17 in 2015
Gregory: No. 60 in 2015
Jackson: No. 61 in 2022
And if you count last offseason’s huge free-agent addition, Javon Hargrave, who was a 2016 third-round pick (89th overall), the 49ers have eight defensive linemen who were drafted in the top 100. That’s a lot of talent. That’s a lot of money and draft capital invested into a group that didn’t get to Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins once and only sporadically bothered Joe Burrow on his way to a nearly perfect day last Sunday.
It wasn’t solely about the D-line on Tuesday, of course. The 49ers were in on multiple other discussions leading up to the 1 p.m. deadline, and I was told got close to a second deal. So close that there was some expectation that they were getting it done, probably for a cornerback. But obviously you never know as things shift and teams field offers during the countdown.
I reported all this on the website formerly known as Twitter leading up to the deadline and yet there was no second 49ers trade. Potentially thousands if not millions of NFL fans will never forgive me for this, and I’m OK with that. I think the 49ers wanted a cornerback and an offensive lineman, if possible, at this deadline, but those deals didn’t happen. In the next few days and weeks, we’ll likely find out more about whom they were targeting and why things failed to finalize.
It’s not a shock, though, that the 49ers’ first move was for a pass rusher, especially after the division-leading Seahawks acquired defensive tackle Leonard Williams from the Giants earlier this week. If, after giving up so many premium picks in the McCaffrey and Lance deals the last few years, the 49ers were unwilling to part with next year’s second-round pick and only were dangling one of their upcoming comp picks, it was going to be for a defensive lineman every time.
Then, no matter what happens this season, Shanahan and Lynch will probably use another high draft pick on a D-lineman next April. And sign one in free agency. Then maybe trade for another. It defines their team. How Lynch and Shanahan think about football. And about everything, really.
(Photo: Michael Owens / Getty Images)