49ers 2021 90-man roster preview: Defensive end

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There’s not a more important position on the 49ers’ defense than defensive end. They’ve built a defense around getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing him into mistakes that the secondary can clean up. While some teams are building their defenses from back to front, the 49ers have done the opposite.

Since general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan took over in 2017, they’ve used two first-round picks on edge rushers, traded a second-round pick for DE Dee Ford and paid him handsomely, and then this offseason added former Rams edge rusher Samson Ebukam on a two-year contract.

Last year injuries forced the 49ers to turn to reserves as starters, and their defense took a step back because of it. Here’s what they’re working with at the position going into camp:

Nick Bosa

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There isn't a more important defensive player for the 49ers this year than Bosa. Coming off a torn ACL, he needs to build on his strong rookie campaign where he posted 9.0 sacks. If he can take even a small step forward, the 49ers defensive line will be very good and he'll be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Arik Armstead

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Armstead's role in the 49ers' defense isn't that of a true edge rusher. He's an excellent run stopper on the outside though and does most of his pass rushing damage from the interior when he kicks inside on passing downs. Having a full compliment of edge rushers back should put Armstead back into the mix to be among the team's sack leaders the way he was when he had a team-best 10.0 two years ago.

Dee Ford

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Ford's availability is one of the biggest question marks for San Francisco going into camp. Shanahan expressed some optimism that Ford could be available to start camp after he missed virtually all of last season with a back injury. He spent almost the entire offseason at the team facility rehabbing. Getting him in the mix as an additional pass rusher to would provide the necessary depth to have a strong rotation on the edge to affect quarterbacks for four quarters.

Samson Ebukam

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The addition of Ebukam in the offseason was a nice low-risk, high-reward move by the 49ers' front office. He had 14 sacks in four years with the Rams as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Now the 6-3, 245-pound, athletic pass rusher will get a chance to put his hand in the grass and get after the quarterback more consistently. He may not see a massive jump the way Shaq Barrett did with an increased role his first year in Tampa Bay, but Ebukam should clear his career-best 4.5 sacks, which would be a welcome shot of productivity off the edge for San Francisco.

Jordan Willis

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The 49ers won't have Willis for the first six games because of a suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing substance policy. He was acquired in a trade last year and fits a similar mold to Ebukam, although without the success prior to arriving in San Francisco. He's going into a second year with the 49ers' defense, and he'll be a welcome addition to their defensive line coming off his suspension assuming there's a roster spot for him.

Arden Key

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Key's pro career has gone sideways. He was once considered a high first-round prospect, but some off-field issues cratered his draft stock and the Raiders eventually took him third round of the 2018 draft. In 37 games with Oakland/Las Vegas he posted only 3.0 sacks and none in 14 games a season ago. The 49ers are hoping to unlock some untapped potential, but he'll need a strong camp to work his way onto the 53-man roster.

Alex Barrett

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Injuries along the defensive line pushed Barrett into action for seven games – five more than he played in his only other regular-season work with the Lions in 2017. He was added to the practice squad, waived and cut more than 10 times between his original signing with San Francisco in November 2019. It's hard to envision a path to the roster for him, but he'll be a practice squad candidate.

Daeshon Hall

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Hall joined the 49ers' practice squad late last season. He played in 13 games across two years with Philadelphia and one season with the Panthers, who selected him in the third round of the 2017 draft. He has 1.5 tackles, one tackle for loss and three quarterback hits as a pro. He's a practice squad candidate if he puts together a good camp.

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