SANTA CLARA — We’re at the point where it’s time to consider the possibility that the 49ers will go into their Week 1 opener in Pittsburgh Sunday without their best player.
Edge rusher Nick Bosa remains unsigned while seeking a contract extension that would likely make him the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL at $32 million per season or more, although it’s not known if the 49ers are willing to go that high in terms of a multi-year deal.
The stages of grief among 49ers have have gone from “unconcerned” throughout the offseason to “barely worried” at the start of camp to “OK, now this is serious” as training came to a close.
And although it’s still possible Bosa could sign an extension and be on the field Sunday in Pittsburgh, it remains to be seen how much he’d play no matter the amount of high-tech training he’s done in the last several months.
Whether Bosa has minimal snaps or doesn’t play at all, it’s a call to action for four outside edge rushers whose career numbers aren’t in the same stratosphere when it comes to rushing the passer: second-year player Drake Jackson, free agent signee Clelin Ferrell, veteran Kerry Hyder Jr. and free agent Austin Bryant.
The most explosive pass rusher of the quartet is Jackson, who flashed early as a rookie, then receded into the background and was finally inactive when the 49ers went to the playoffs. Jackson remade his body in the offseason in terms of training and diet.
“With or without Bosa, I feel we’ll do well,” Jackson said Monday. “We’ll miss him if he’s not there. But we can’t just ponder and wait on him even though we want him back. We’ve got to do our jobs.”
In winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Bosa had 18 1/2 sacks in 16 games, or one sack every 40.3 snaps. His 43 career sacks have come once every 56.6 snaps. Both figures amount to one sack within the course of a usual game.
Here’s a look at how 49ers edge players who would play in Bosa’s absence (or minimal time) have sacked the quarterback in their careers:
49ers defensive lineman Kerry Hyder Jr. pressures New England quarterback Cam Newton in 2020 in Foxborough, Mass. A.P. Photo
Hyder: 2,853 snaps, 51 sacks in 87 games. One sack for every 135.8 snaps.
Ferrell: 1,864 snaps, 10 sacks in 58 games. One sack for every 186.4 snaps.
Bryant: 989 snaps four sacks in 33 games. One sack for every 247.3 snaps.
Jackson: 315 snaps, three sacks in 15 games. One sack for every 105 snaps.
It’s clear that in Bosa’s absence, the Pittsburgh offense and quarterback Kenny Pickett would have a lot less to worry about. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s star edge rusher T.J. Watt will be coming after Brock Purdy in a big way.
Having already been saddled with the pressure of being the draft pick that was supposed to replace Khalil Mack with the Raiders, Ferrell isn’t getting caught up in a numbers game and he’s taken to the tough-love approach of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.
“Man, I feel great,” Ferrell said. “Being with a new team and a new environment has been really, really good for me so far. I think the way we do things here makes it really easy for someone to focus on the right things.
“This is a team, not a lot of star players, but we do a really good job of keeping the main thing the main thing and not focusing on outside noise.”
Jackson said his approach won’t change, Bosa or no Bosa.
“This was going to happen either way,” Jackson said. “If he’s not here we’re going to have to step up regardless. We can’t just ponder and wait on him even though we want him back. We’ve got to do our jobs.”
While the focus will be on the edge rushers, keep in mind the 49ers also signed free agent Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million contract in the offseason to collapse the pocket from the interior. Combine that with Arik Armstead getting through the offseason and training camp healthy and it’s not as if the Steelers offensive line is going to get the day off.
The more Hargrave and Armstead pressure Pickett up the middle, the better the chance an edge rusher can break free and join the party.
Then there is defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, whose reputation is that he’ll bring more pressure from linebackers and defensive backs than his predecessor DeMeco Ryans. Linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Ji’Ayr Brown and nickle corner Isaiah Oliver are all blitzing candidates.
“I think it would be more aggressive,” Greenlaw said of Wilks’ scheme if Bosa is not available. “It kind of depends on the feel of the game, how he’s feeling. If he wants to hit them up early I’m sure he’s going to dial some pressure. But if he feels we can attack them in our normal, three-deep, two-high look, it’s kind of a feel. We don’t have the game plan yet.”
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Wilks will no doubt have contingency plans — one with Bosa, one without Bosa, and one with Bosa playing minimal snaps.
In a national conference call last week, CBS analyst and former three-time NFL Player of the Year J.J. Watt (the brother of Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt) didn’t think it would take Bosa to get up to speed once he signs.
“It’s my own position, so I can rip myself here. we’re not the sharpest tools in the shed,” J.J. Watt said. “They literally line up and say, Go get the football.’ I don’t have to know coverages. I don’t have to know multiple assignments and the playbook is pretty much, `Go get the ball, ball, big guy.’ I think he’s going to be fine out there.”