NFL preview 2019: How 49ers' defense stacks up against NFC West rivals

Brian Witt
NBC Sports BayArea
If the 49ers' defensive line lives up to its potential, it will make life a lot easier on everyone else.

NFL preview 2019: How 49ers' defense stacks up against NFC West rivals

If the 49ers' defensive line lives up to its potential, it will make life a lot easier on everyone else.

Does defense still win championships?

Based on the way the NFL has evolved over the last several years, with new rules emphasizing the protection of quarterbacks, one has to wonder. It's a different game now. Scoring is at an all-time high. Last season, NFL teams combined for 1,371 touchdowns, the most in a single season in the 99-year history of the league.

What realistic chance does a defense have against modern offenses, under current rules? That depends on the contents of each respective defense, but one thing is clear: It's not a fair fight.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

The NFC West likely will exemplify that fact this coming season. One could make the case that the strength of each team in the division is its offense, and if the critical players remain healthy, they're bound to put up huge numbers.

Still, though, it's not like the NFC West lacks for defensive talent. There are numerous Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers on the defensive side of the ball, and several promising young players making the ascent to that level.

Based on the offseason developments, here's how the NFC West defenses rank with training camp only weeks away:

1. Los Angeles Rams

When it comes to the Rams' defense, everything starts and ends with Aaron Donald.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is a one-man wrecking crew. He led the league with 20.5 sacks last season, and his 113 total pressures led all interior linemen by a wide margin. With all the double and triple teams he faces, it allows the other members of the defense to thrive.

Ndamukong Suh and Lamarcus Joyner are gone, but Los Angeles acquired veterans Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle in free agency. Weddle will join a defensive backfield that includes former standouts Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, rising safety John Johnson and second-round draft pick Taylor Rapp.

Matthews and Dante Fowler -- who was brought back on a one-year deal -- both have double-digit sack potential, roaming in Donald's wake.

2. San Francisco 49ers

Since 2015, the 49ers have used four first-round draft picks on defensive linemen. Additionally, they traded a second-round pick to Kansas City for Dee Ford. It's time to put up or shut up.

Based on talent alone, one could make the case San Francisco has the best defensive line in the NFL. Even if it's not the best, it certainly has the potential to be up there.

Ford is coming off a season in which he recorded 13.0 sacks and seven forced fumbles and led all edge rushers in quarterback pressures. Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner made the leap last season, leading the 49ers with 12.0 sacks. Add in former first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, as well as 2019 No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa, and it's easy to see why opposing quarterbacks should be very, very afraid.

San Francisco will need that defensive line to live up to its potential, though, because the rest of the defense has quite a few question marks.

The 49ers' biggest defensive free-agent acquisition came in the form of linebacker Kwon Alexander, who offers lots of promise at the position, but is coming off a torn ACL. If he can stay healthy, Alexander and Fred Warner could form a near-ideal linebacking duo for the modern NFL.

Richard Sherman has one cornerback spot locked down, but the rest of the defensive backfield seems to be in constant flux. At safety, neither Jaquiski Tartt nor Jimmie Ward has proven the ability to stay healthy, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon took a step back in his sophomore campaign.

If the 49ers' defensive line fulfills its promise, it'll make life a lot easier on everyone else.

3. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals' defense wasn't as bad last season as their record indicated. When you're the worst team in the league, your defense faces a lot of short fields. That's something new head coach Kliff Kingsbury and new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph hope to change this coming season.

They've got some talent to work with. Linebacker Chandler Jones has recorded more sacks (41) than any other player since 2016. The Cardinals added former Arizona State legend Terrell Suggs in free agency, and he can still get after the quarterback after totaling 7.0 sacks last year.

The defensive backfield might be the strength of the team, with future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson holding down one cornerback spot after his six-game suspension, and 2019 second-round draft pick Byron Murphy likely manning the other. D.J. Swearinger and Budda Baker form a quality safety duo.

[RELATED: These three players are most important to 49ers' success]

4. Seattle Seahawks

My, how times have changed.

After years after possessing arguably the top defense in the league, the Seahawks took a step backward last season, and they might take another this year.

Bobby Wagner is still one of the best linebackers in the league, but there's a significant talent dropoff after him. Seattle traded away defensive end Frank Clark, who notched 32 sacks over the last three seasons combined. L.J. Collier was drafted in the first round as an eventual replacement, but it would be wildly unfair to expect him to make the same kind of impact in his rookie season. Free-agent signee Ziggy Ansah has a bunch of talent, but health is a constant concern.

With Earl Thomas departing for Baltimore and Kam Chancellor retiring, the "Legion of Boom" era is officially dead. And, looking at their current defensive backfield, it's going to be a while before it is revived.

NFL preview 2019: How 49ers' defense stacks up against NFC West rivals originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

What to Read Next