Three Young Stars at the Heart of SF’s Promising Defense

Four weeks into the season, and San Francisco still hasn’t found their first win. Despite that, though, there have been a few signs that SF is both better than their record, and likely to be even better than that in the relatively near future.

They played both the Rams and the Seahawks (two probable playoff teams) down to the wire, and could have won either game (and the game against Arizona, while we’re at it) with just one more good play... or a missed field goal on the other end. Carlos Hyde and his no-no-YES tackle-baiting has looked like one of the best running backs in the league. Pierre Garcon makes at least one “there’s no way this guy is 100% human, and if he is he must have been bitten by a radioactive spider or something” miracle catch per game.

Mostly, though, the front line defense has looked better than expected. Way better than expected, even. Best of all, it’s been so much better than expected thanks to young, improving players. SF could be one of the strongest pass rushing teams in the league as soon as next year, and if so, it’ll largely be thanks to three guys.  

Solomon Thomas

We covered Thomas pretty extensively a few weeks ago in our Who to Rep feature, so we won’t spill a ton of ink on him here, but it’s worth noting that since we wrote that piece he’s racked up another six tackles and his first career sack. He looks more confident—and more dangerous—every game, and he’s establishing great chemistry with the #1 guy on this list.

Reuben Foster

We haven’t seen much of Foster yet, and he isn’t responsible for any of the good news so far, but he was SF’s top pick this year and certainly looked like a good one. Adding the savage linebacker to an already near-elite pass rush will only help, and unleashing him on the run game could solve one of SF’s biggest defensive weaknesses (though sadly it won’t do much for their not-yet-ready-for-prime-time secondary).

It’s a bummer that Foster’s out, but all signs are good that he should return sooner than later, and without any lasting damage to his ankle. Once he does, look for SF to get a little faster—and a little meaner—on the defensive end behind his in-your-face physicality and confident swagger.

Deforest Buckner

Through four games, sophomore defensive tackle Deforest Buckner isn’t merely the best interior defender in San Francisco—he’s the best interior defender in the NFL. At least, according to Pro Football Focus he has, posting their highest grade for an interior defender at 93.2 on their scale. 

Buckner’s recorded a sack, nine QB hits, and thirteen hurries so far, charging into the pocket every game like a charging rhinoceros playing for a contract. He’s also been elite stuffing the run at the point of attack, with ten run stops already on the season.

Beyond efficient, Buckner’s also been tireless, playing more defensive snaps so far than any other interior defender… and playing them better. The scary thing is, at only twenty-three years old, Buckner’s still got plenty of time to get even more lethal.

If he, Thomas, and Foster all live up to their potential, it’s going to be a long couple of years for NFC quarterbacks unlucky enough to end up with San Francisco on their schedule. Given Thomas and Buckner are already playing at an elite level in their first and second years, respectively, and Foster’s barely-there projected ceiling, the odds are better than not that the best is yet to come for all three of them.

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