The New York Jets have named San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as their new head coach. Saleh had spent the last four seasons turning the 49ers defensive unit into one of the best in the league. The 49ers must continue their defensive success. They need to make the right hire to replace Saleh. It looks like DeMeco Ryans will be that hire as 49ers DC.
San Francisco 49ers Defensive Coordinator Role Goes to DeMeco Ryans
Leading the 49ers’ defense is an appealing job. After all, a coordinator will not get a head coaching job elsewhere unless the unit they previously led was successful. The 49ers’ defensive coordinator job is even more appealing because Nick Bosa will return healthy next season. He will immediately improve the pass rush. If this last season revealed anything, it’s that Bosa is one of the rare players in this league that can single-handedly create positive ramifications that ripple through the rest of the defense. He commands so much attention that it allows for other players on the defensive line an easier time to get to the quarterback.
An improved pass rush can help disguise any deficiencies in the secondary, as well. The faster the quarterback is forced to release the ball, the less time a secondary has to break down in their coverage. That secondary will end up looking much better than if a quarterback has plenty of time to throw the ball and exploit the weaknesses in it. The 49ers have numerous members of their secondary facing free agency this off-season. It could ultimately look like a completely different group of players next season. The only defensive backs that started a game for the 49ers this season that are still under contract are Jimmie Ward and Tarvarius Moore. Given that those two are both safeties, it further emphasizes that the cornerback position, in particular, could look radically different for the 49ers next season. They will almost certainly address the position via the draft. Also, the 49ers must figure out how to wisely prioritize their free-agent cornerbacks to retain.
DeMeco Ryans Has Been on 49ers Coaching Staff Since 2017
Uncertainty at the cornerback position aside, this is an appealing job for any defensive coordinator. There is no reason Ryans can not pick up right where Saleh left off as 49ers DC. Ryans has been with head coach Kyle Shanahan’s staff since Shanahan joined the 49ers in 2017. Ryans has played a significant role in rebuilding the team into a championship contender. He served as the defensive quality control coach in 2017. He then became the inside linebackers coach from 2018-2020.
His mentoring has helped middle linebacker Fred Warner become perhaps the best interior linebacker in all of football. Warner made the Pro Bowl and was named First-Team All-Pro this past season. Warner looks like one of the defensive building blocks for the 49ers moving forward. Ryans himself was a middle linebacker who made two Pro Bowls and one First-Team All-Pro during a ten-year career with the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles.
The internal promotion of Ryans looks like a solid move for the 49ers. The presence of Saleh isn’t easy to replace, but Ryans seems like the logical choice for 49ers’ defensive coordinator. Ryans has been a crucial part of helping this defense become one of the best in the league. Assuming the defense can avoid the same types of debilitating injuries they suffered this season, they look poised to return to an elite level. For what it’s worth, Saleh wanted Ryans to join him with the Jets as his own defensive coordinator. That’s as much of an indication that the 49ers were wise to promote Ryans as anything. The guy who previously had the job thinks highly enough of Ryans that he wanted him to serve with him on his new team in the same position.
Improved Pass Rush Next Season Can Help Mask Concerns in the Secondary
The cornerback situation is precarious right now. An improved pass rush next season with Bosa returning can certainly help alleviate any concerns to an extent, though. The impact of Bosa alone is hard to overstate. It relieves stress on the secondary. It also opens up opportunities for guys like Arik Armstead to get to the quarterback. It’s not a coincidence that Armstead had by far the best season of his career when playing alongside Bosa on that defensive line. Javon Kinlaw showed a lot of promise during his rookie season. Perhaps that makes the team more willing to let Solomon Thomas go elsewhere in free agency. Kerry Hyder is hitting free agency after coming off an impressive 8.5 sacks this season. He might have priced himself out of what the 49ers could logistically do to retain him, though. D.J. Jones is also set to hit free agency after starting a combined 25 games at defensive tackle over the last two seasons.
It is unclear the fate of Thomas, Hyder, and Jones going forward with the 49ers. Dee Ford is also a big question mark. He played just one game all of last season before neck issues forced him out. Compared to what it was last season, this pass rush will improve just from Bosa returning. That is the type of impact he has. If the defensive line next season looks something like Bosa and Armstead on the edges and Kinlaw and either Jones or a replacement for Jones on the interior, they’ll be in good shape.
As far as linebackers go, Warner is elite. Dre Greenlaw at outside linebacker is also one of the intriguing young pieces amongst this 49ers defense. He improved his tackles per game rate this last season. He built upon a rookie season in which he made the PFWA All-Rookie Team. Greenlaw also tied for second on the team in tackles for loss last season. He’s got a bright future.
The secondary is something to monitor this off-season. The team has numerous decisions to make regarding the path moving forward addressing that group. Ryans seems like the perfect person to take over as defensive coordinator, though. The defense remains the strength of this team. When everyone is healthy, the pass rush can consistently harass the quarterback. This defense is one of the best in all of football if not operating shorthanded.
Injuries Derailed the 49ers Last Season
The sheer bad luck involved in how depleted the 49ers were last season invokes some hope that it couldn’t possibly be that bad again. The defense went from “elite” in 2019 to “good” in 2020. Given the injuries involved, it’s a credit to the players and coaches that the unit was still as strong as it was. That’s a positive sign that Ryans will get that defense back to where it was in 2019. Bosa returning to the lineup is the main factor in that confidence. Ryans was a part of that defensive success in 2019. Now he’s getting a well-deserved promotion to lead this unit that’s among the best in the league when fully healthy.
The secondary remains a question mark. The number of free agents is daunting. Assuming that they can retain some pieces and draft some competent replacements for those who leave, it’s nothing to be overly panicked over, though. An improved pass rush can work wonders with helping out that secondary. Bosa coming back and providing that potent pass rush makes it a much easier job for the defensive backs in the secondary.
This situation looks like an invaluable opportunity for Ryans to succeed as 49ers defensive coordinator. An internal hire of someone with his qualifications seems like the smart move. Assuming they can stay relatively healthy next season, this defense has a great chance under Ryans to vault back into elite status.