After trading All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner in March, the 49ers placed a priority on maintaining their defensive-line dominance entering last week’s NFL draft.
The good news for the team, they believe: They landed South Carolina’s All-America defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw with the No. 14 pick.
More good news: Their NFC West opponents didn’t make similar investments in their shaky offensive lines after failing to make major upgrades in free agency.
A year after the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals fielded below-average front fives, they didn’t spend a first- or second-round pick on the position.
The Cardinals drafted one lineman, Houston tackle Josh Jones, in the third round. The Seahawks took one lineman, LSU guard Damien Lewis, in the third round. And the Rams grabbed one lineman, Clemson guard Tremayne Anchrum, in the seventh.
Last year, Pro Football Focus’ offensive-line rankings placed each team among the league’s also-rans: The Cardinals were 22nd, the Seahawks 27th and the Rams 31st.
Rams general manager Les Snead acknowledged his fans probably were perplexed by the team’s decision to not address the position until pick No. 250. He explained that the Rams had confidence in their group of young and unproven linemen. The Rams have five linemen who are 24 or younger and have been selected in the second through fifth rounds since 2018.
Their lone slam-dunk starter in 2020, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, 38, is entering his 15th season.
“We did go into (the draft) probably a little different than maybe the outside of our building where, ‘OK, hey, it’s a major, major glaring weakness, the Rams’ offensive line,’” Snead said to reporters after the draft Saturday. “We felt confident that if we continue grooming and developing these players, they’d have a chance to become a really solid offensive line.”
The 49ers took a different tact with their defensive line. There was pre-draft speculation they might take a by-committee approach to replacing Buckner that would include Solomon Thomas, 24, and D.J. Jones, 25. Instead, they selected Kinlaw, who was viewed as the draft’s second-best defensive tackle.
Last year, in games in which their starting defensive line of Buckner, Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford all played, the 49ers went 3-1 against their divisional foes and had 16 sacks. Their average of four sacks per game translates to 64 in a season, which,, for perspective, is a figure not reached in the NFL since the Saints had 66 in 2000. In contrast, the 49ers had just one sack in their other two divisional games, both wins, when Ford was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
In other words, the 49ers often looked unblockable when their line was intact, but they weren’t the same without Ford. And they didn’t want to see what happened if they tried a Scotch-tape approach to their life without Buckner.
General manager John Lynch pointed to that when explaining the Kinlaw pick.
“I think one of the most tangible reasons we were in a Super Bowl last year was because when we were right, when we were healthy, we overwhelmed people from a defensive-line perspective,” Lynch said.
In 2019, the Arizona allowed the fifth-most sacks (50) in the NFL and the Seahawks allowed the ninth most (48).
The Rams allowed the fewest(22), but quarterback Jared Goff was consistently harassed. Los Angeles allowed the 17th-most pressures (QB hurries and hits) and the heat on Goff helps explain this advanced stat: He had the second-most “bad throws” in the NFL, as measured by pro-football-reference.com.
As for the Cardinals and Seahawks, they have two of the most mobile QBs in the NFL in Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson, respectively.
And they might be fleeing the pocket frequently again this season.
The Seahawks have overhauled their offensive line. They released two starters, center Justin Britt and guard D.J. Fluker, and starting tackle Germain Ifedi signed with the Bears. Seattle’s additions include two mid-range free agents, former Jets tackle Brandon Shell and former Steelers guard/center B.J. Finney, along with Lewis, their third-round pick.
The Cardinals will have more stability. Jones, their third-round pick, has a chance to take over the job at right tackle. At center, starter A.Q. Shipley, 33, wasn’t re-signed and could be replaced by Mason Cole, a 2018 third-round pick.