49ers defense: A summer suspense thriller

In football, roster turnovers are a standard practice with new regimes. And that’s exactly what the new San Francisco 49ers’ head coach/general manager duo of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have done this off-season.

With Shanahan implementing his own system, and Lynch bring his philosophy, it’s no surprise that a large portion of players from the old regimes are being replaced with new, hand-picked players.

In fact, according to Over The Cap, the 49ers currently have the sixth highest roster turnover this off-season. Their rank will likely move up as soon as Colin Kaepernick is signed by a new team.

It’s no surprise that offensive personnel has been shuffled around this offseason. Shanahan is attempting to find players that fit into the offensive system that made Matt Ryan into an MVP, as well as allowing the entire Atlanta Falcons offense to have a historic season.

However, on the defensive side of the ball, things are getting a little interesting.

Despite cycling through a number of coaches in relatively short amount of time, the 49ers have not strayed away from their 3-4 base defense. For the first time in years, Shanahan, Lynch, and defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh have decided to switch to a 4-3 base defense.

This isn’t the only change being made on defense. Some familiar faces on defense have been switched out for new blood, as is par for the course with a regime change.

Fans have gotten used to seeing players like Antoine Bethea, Michael Wilhoite, and Tramaine Brock on the field for them. None of these players are on the team anymore. But a player doesn’t need to be cut to lose their spot on the field.

There are interesting roster battles at every level on the defense this offseason. Longtime starters such as Ahmad Brooks might see his number of snaps diminish significantly because of all the new and young talent that the 49ers have accumulated.

Every team has roster battles every single off-season. What makes the 49ers’ battles so interesting is that just about every single spot on the defense is up for grabs. Yes, there are favorites to win each spot, but that doesn’t mean I’d be willing to place any bets on them.


Before Brock was cut, he was practically penciled in as a starter. That meant a lot of guys were competing for one starting outside corner position. With his release, now both spots are open, along with the nickel spot.

Rashard Robinson and 3rd round draft pick Ahkello Witherspoon are the favorites to win the two outside corner spots, with Keith Reaser taking the nickel position. But nothing is written in stone, and guys like Dontae Johnson, Will Redmond, and K’Waun Williams have a good spot at winning a starting spot as well.

With Jimmie Ward moving to free safety and Eric Reid rotating to strong safety, the two safety positions are somewhat set. However, there’s no guarantee that Ward can make the switch to safety. Reid also hasn’t lived up to his pro bowl rookie season, so there are openings for someone like Jaquiski Tartt to come down and swoop in ahead of one of these guys.


The 49ers believe that Reuben Foster can fill the hole that was left by the retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland. However, they aren’t just handing him a starting job. There is another fierce competition for all of the linebacker spots. Foster joins NaVorro Bowman, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Malcolm Smith, Eli Harold, and Brooks, who are all vying for a spot on the field.

Bowman has been the 49ers’ star linebacker for a few years, but he is coming off an Achilles injury that he suffered last season. The 49ers gave Smith a 5-year $25.6 million contract this offseason, and they definitely wouldn’t want to pay him that much to sit on the bench. Brooks is the veteran of the group, and he has always been solid and has the experience that makes him tough to beat out.

Defensive Line:

The competition that everyone has their eyes on is on the defensive line. This is where changing to a 4-3 will have the biggest impact. There are tons of speculation for who is going to line up where on the line.

The 49ers have used their last three first round picks on a defensive lineman. Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas all have the talent to start on the line. However, just because a player was picked early in the draft doesn’t mean that they are guaranteed a spot on the field. But it does mean they were picked early for a reason, and coaches and fans don’t want to see their picks wasted.

Many fans and analysts have been lamenting the idea that drafting three guys who can all play the same position is redundant. Others are worried that someone like Armstead, who is 6’8, won’t fit in a 4-3 defense. No one except the coaches know for sure how they fit these three guys along with guys like Aaron Lynch, Elvis Dumervil Ronald Blair, Tank Carradine, and Earl Mitchell, one the line. All of these players have the talent to start, but there’s only so many spots on the line and so many snaps to go around.

The plan is reportedly to have a steady rotation to keep guys fresh and keep offenses on their toes. Sure, it might be cooler to call yourself a starter than rotation player for some of these guys, but it might be what helps the team win.

Think of it as a similar concept as a 6th man in basketball. The 6th man might not start, but he is extremely important to the success to the team. It’s not really who starts the game, it’s who finishes it. And if any of these guys are having a good game, they’ll be getting snaps during crunch time.

Most of the draw that comes from football obviously happens during the season, but watching the roster slowly develop is exciting in its own right. The uncertainty makes for great suspenseful entertainment while we wait impatiently for the season to start.

The coaches have a lot of tough decisions to make before the season starts, but after the last couple seasons, having too much talent is a problem that the coaches and fans would love to have.