This series is a seven-part examination of the 49ers’ most critical needs, and the free agents who might be able to meet those needs, given the right offers and the right timing. I’ll also be looking at the players with expiring contracts who have filled the positions of need, and why they (mostly) didn’t cut the mustard in Santa Clara. And I will operate on the assumption that the team does not spend a draft pick on any of them, just to keep things simple; I know General Manager John Lynch & Co. will be using their draft picks wisely and generously, but I don’t want to muddy the waters for the sake of the rest of this Nothing But Niners series.
Last week I previewed options at cornerback.
This week, let’s have a look at free agent edge rushers.
Why We Need This
Let’s face it. The 49ers were in the bottom 20% of teams last year when it came to pass-rushing, only getting 30 sacks in all 16 games. Even the presence of Elvis Dumervil, who got his 100th career sack in the red and gold, didn’t redeem the team’s performance: Dumervil got fewer than 7. The team tried to make Arik Armstead into a threat at the LEO position, but that didn’t pan out and he was ultimately injured. Aaron Lynch at least looked as if he was trying, but he didn’t have the breakout year his (very patient) supporters were hoping for.
Lynch, Tank Carradine, and Leger Douzable are all free agents this year, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the team decided the experiments with each of them needed to end. Carradine has been especially disappointing to me: when he joined the squad I thought he would be living up to his nickname, blowing through tackles, skewering tight ends and putting quarterbacks on the turf. Turns out he was indeed a tank — a largely empty one when it came to rushing the passer.
That leaves Solomon Thomas (who got 3 sacks in his rookie campaign), Ronald Blair (who got 2) and Cassius Marsh (who got 2 and has just signed a 2-year extension with the team). Who’s gonna join them this offseason?
My money is on one or more of these men…
Third Choice: Kony Ealy, Jets
Ealy has the qualities of a linebacker (tall, lanky, quick) and the statistics of a pass rusher (15 sacks in three years, which is half of what our entire team got last season). He is good at spinning off blocks rather than just engaging in extended shoving matches with guards or tight ends. And he has a certain level of achievement already: Ealy was named to the Sports Illustrated All-Rookie Team of 2014, he has strip-sacked both Andrew Luck and Aaron Rogers, and he tied the Super Bowl record of three sacks in Super Bowl 50 (in only 23 total snaps, mind you). He does need to keep building up strength and could stand to learn how to deal with double teams better, but who better than Dumervil to teach him? Ealy is definitely someone worth considering for next season. Ealy could also come cheap, having bounced around the league in the past couple of seasons.
Second Choice: Ziggy Ansah, Lions
Yeah, so I’m on the bandwagon for the guy — so what? Ansah could jump right in at LEO and be at least as productive as Dumervil, and probably moreso, given his experience there and his productivity of late. 12 sacks last season? That’s as many as Dumervil, Thomas and Blair combined. And having Ansah to pressure quarterbacks means that any offensive line would have to divide its attention between him, Thomas and Deforest Buckner. Martin Mayhew, the executive who drafted Ansah out of BYU in 2013, now works for the Red and Gold, so Ansah would have a built-in comfort level and familiarity with the front office. Sure, he has dealt with injuries and might ask for a hefty paycheck, but is any team likely to be able to meet his demands better than the 49ers this offseason? Doubtful at best. If Detroit doesn’t haul this guy in, we would be foolish not to at least try.
(Before getting to my #1: Demarcus Lawrence is not going to be a free agent, folks — Dallas will sacrifice a virgin, assuming they can find one, to keep him as a Cowboy. Get over it.)
First Choice: Adrian Clayborn, Falcons
During the past two years, Clayborn has done it all: he has been a pass rusher, a solid run defender, and the Iron Man (Bird?) on the Atlanta squad who had more defensive snaps than anyone else; a player who consistently lead the defensive end rotation in snaps each week. One game does not a quality edge rusher make, you understand, but to bring a quarterback down six times in one contest (as Clayborn did against Dallas last season) doesn’t happen every Sunday. And having over 20 sacks in a career isn’t common, either. Plus, he won’t break the bank the way Ansah might, and SF can easily match anything the Falcons would offer him. If Clayborn doesn’t shrink three feet or suddenly have all his muscles atrophy, he will be a huge asset who whatever team signs him — and I think it ought to be us.
We need some serious, devastating firepower off the edge. Now. Drop the dime, Kyle. Make the call, John.
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