SANTA CLARA — For most of the offseason, much of the talk surrounding the San Francisco 49ers’ revamped roster revolved around the additions made to their defensive line, a unit which vastly underachieved in 2018.
After adding talented edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa to complement their already-existing pass rushing threats, San Francisco looks to have a formidable group headed into 2019.
During their first practice Saturday afternoon, the 49ers’ defensive line looked to embrace the expectations that now surround them. By controlling the line of scrimmage and harassing the offense, San Francisco’s D-line established its dominance on the first day of training camp.
“Of course we embrace it. Every defense, the heart and soul is up front,” Ford said after practice. “We understand what the expectations are and we have to put in the work. This is the time to do it and that’s what we’re doing.”
Last season, the 49ers failed to see the much production out of their defensive line. They gave up the 14th-most rushing yards per game (113.4) and recorded the 10th-least total number of sacks (37).
To make matters worse, 12 of those sacks came from one player, DeForest Buckner, who was the lone 49ers defensive player to be named to the Pro Bowl last season.
In an attempt to rectify their inadequacies, the 49ers traded a 2020 second-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for Ford and injured linebacker Kwon Alexander, and spent its second overall pick in the 2019 draft on Bosa, the star edge rusher out of Ohio State and younger brother of Chargers defensive end Joey.
In their first day of official practice, both Ford and Bosa found themselves handling the offensive line during their respective reps, working on both the interior and exterior of the line as part of this year’s plan from defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
“You’re going to see them all over the place,” Saleh said. “The philosophy of our system is to throw four guys out there and wherever they land, they play.”
For Bosa, the surprisingly polished rookie was even able to get the best of the 49ers’ best offensive lineman Joe Staley, who Ford says is the No. 1 left tackle in all of football.
“Bosa wins in close quarters. He needs, he wants you close to him, as close as possible,” Saleh said. “Then he just has an ability to flip his hips, get skinny all in close quarters, where most people need space so they can knock arms down and they can create angles for themselves.”
Ford worked against San Francisco’s other starting offensive tackle, Mike McGlinchey, entering his second NFL season out of Notre Dame.
“When I first got here, I didn’t know he was that young,” Ford said. “He’s going to be really good. I thought he was a vet… Us going against each other is going to be fun. He’ll see that on Sunday it’s going to be a lot easier.”
Ford at times took advantage of the young McGlinchey as he was able to get around the 25-year old with his infamous first step and speed.
It wasn’t just the pair of new additions who established themselves on Saturday. Veteran defensive lineman Solomon Thomas opened camp looking as good from a technical standpoint as he does from a physical one.
After dropping over 20 pounds, adding lean muscle to his frame and getting healthy from a mental-health perspective, Thomas is on the quest to live up to the third overall pick San Francisco spent on him in the 2017 draft.
On his first rep of team drills, the former Stanford lineman, along with linebacker David Mayo, broke into the backfield to stop running back Matt Breida in his tracks two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Just four plays later, Thomas squeaked through the middle again to pressure quarterback C.J. Beathard for a would-be sack.
“Solly had a great offseason and he looks motivated,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “I’m excited for him and how he’s going to help our team this year. It’s going to take a collective group of everyone playing to their best ability to be successful out there.”
Last season, in the wake of his sister’s tragic suicide, Thomas suffered a steep regression from his rookie season in 2017. In 13 games, Thomas recorded just one sack and 24 total tackles and six QB hits.
According to his teammates, coaches and himself, Thomas is now physically and mentally in the best shape of his life, which should bode well for the 49ers defense.