49ers

Robert Saleh outlines 49ers' defensive blueprint

Robert Saleh outlines 49ers' defensive blueprint

SANTA CLARA -- First-time defensive coordinator Robert Saleh inherited the worst – by far – run defense in the NFL.

The 49ers last season surrendered 165.9 yards rushing per game, including 4.8 yards per carry, and 25 touchdowns to rank last in the league in each of those categories. The 49ers finished 2-14. Coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke were fired. Kyle Shanahan was hired.

After being unable to hire Gus Bradley or Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator, Shanahan filled the position with the hiring of Saleh, who previously worked as an assistant with Houston, Seattle and Jacksonville.

So it was not difficult for Saleh to find a reasonable starting point for what he wants to establish with the 49ers’ defense in 2017.

“Stopping the run is our No. 1 priority,” Saleh said Monday, on the first day of the 49ers’ offseason program. “The way we align, our demeanor, the responsibility of the defensive players. . . We will stop the run on this defense.”

General manager John Lynch has spoken often in his first two months on the job about deploying an attacking style of defense. Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner spoke about playing more aggressively – unlike the read-and-react style of last season.

“All gas, no brakes,” Buckner said.

Saleh, speaking publicly for the first time since joining the 49ers, described the demeanor he wants from his players as “extreme physicality.”

Saleh spoke about the design of his defense, as well as which players fit in the different spots:

--“We are a single-high (safety) defense," Saleh said. "The system you could say, it originated in Seattle. I was there from the get-go. Three teams currently, Seattle, Atlanta, Jacksonville, if you’re looking at tape, all of them have their nuances and how they operate. I don’t want to say it will be a very different scheme, but there are going to be differences and there will be nuances within this scheme that makes it unique to us.”

--Saleh agreed with the observation that the 49ers will run a 4-3 base defense using what amounts to 3-4 personnel. He emphasized that the strong-side linebacker (Sam) will be more of a pass-rusher because of the high volume of snaps that teams now play with five defensive backs in passing situations.

“It’s almost 70-percent nickel, and the nickel who doesn’t get talked about as a starter, he’s starting to come up as an individual piece to the puzzle,” Saleh said. “So when looking at the Sam linebacker and what they’re asked to do on a day-to-day basis, 70-percent of the game their hand will be in the ground.

“So we’re looking for more of an edge rusher as opposed to what it was in years past with a brut Sam linebacker, a Bill Romanowski-type. We’re trying to move forward from that.”

--The best fits for the Sam linebacker on the 49ers’ current roster are Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold and Dekoda Watson, Saleh said.

The Sam is similar to the “Leo” position, which is similar to the “elephant” position that George Seifert implemented in the 1980s and ‘90s with the 49ers.

Saleh said Aaron Lynch is a Leo type. And Arik Armstead could find a role for himself in a Sam/Leo role, too. Said Saleh, “Even Arik, he’s not a prototype, but he’s capable just from his flexibility.”

--When asked what kind of player he is looking for in the Leo role, Saleh ticked off some names of players who have fit in that role – or players in other systems who have the attributes he desires:

“Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, Vic Beasley. People outside of the system, you’d look at Von Miller, Khalil Mack. Back in his heyday, Charles Haley would have been a guy that would have been a Leo.”

--Saleh said there is no difference between the Mike (middle) linebacker and Will (weak side). Whichever player is best at communicating with the other members of the defense will be designated the Mike.

“Yeah, the Mike-Will, they’re interchangeable,” Saleh said. “So if you look at Seattle, their Will linebacker, K.J. Wright, is 6-4, 245 pounds. If you look at Jacksonville, the Will linebacker was 6-3, 215 pounds. If you look at Atlanta’s Mike linebacker, he’s 220 pounds. Bobby Wagner sits at 240.

“So there’s no height-weight parameter. But, what there is, is one person can communicate and the other one might be able to communicate, but one is better than the other.”

--The 49ers reacted quickly to release starting cornerback Tramaine Brock last week after his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence. The 49ers are keeping an open mind whether to keep Jimmie Ward at cornerback or move him back to free safety to fill a role similar to what Earl Thomas has played with Seattle.

“Jimmie is a very, very versatile athlete,” Saleh said. “He can play corner, he can play safety and whatever is best for the organization is exactly what we’re going to do with Jimmie.”

--Meanwhile, Eric Reid will be a “box safety” – playing closer to the line of scrimmage in a role that Kam Chancellor has filled in the Seattle defense.

--The 49ers have spent first-round draft picks the past two years on defensive linemen Armstead and Buckner. Although selected to play in different systems, Saleh believes both can be versatile enough to play multiple spots in the scheme he is installing.

“The cool thing with the way the front has been built in the past, they are very versatile,” Saleh said. “So you can do anything, we can do anything we want with them. They’re not traditional. When you look at Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, they are very, very unique in the sense that they can play up and down the line however you need them to work. We’ll find what’s best for them.”

Reuben Foster does not wait long to show he can be special for 49ers

Reuben Foster does not wait long to show he can be special for 49ers

SANTA CLARA – There is something different about Reuben Foster.

It is similar to when Patrick Willis stepped on the practice field with the 49ers for training camp in 2007. He started out as a backup and had to earn his way onto the field.

All it took was two exhibition games. Brandon Moore was out of the starting lineup. Patrick Willis was in, and seven consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl followed.

Foster is not being handed a starting job with the 49ers. In fact, he faces a more difficult challenge to break into the starting lineup.

In front of Foster is veteran Malcolm Smith at the weakside linebacker spot. Eventually, Foster’s role in the 49ers’ defense will be the middle linebacker spot, where NaVorro Bowman is entrenched as the starter.

But it’s only a matter of time until Foster asserts himself as an every-down player.

Foster will have to earn his way into the starting lineup. He will have to earn respect with how he practices and plays. That was apparent on Thursday when Bowman was asked whether he watched Foster in college. Bowman gave a tepid review of Foster.

That’s understandable. After all, Foster had not practiced with the team until Friday. He was held out practices during the offseason program as he rehabbed from shoulder surgery. It took Bowman a full year before he won his starting job. Bowman started one game as a rookie before establishing himself as a starter and an All-Pro performer the next season.

Bowman is not going to lavish praise on a player who had never made it through an NFL practice – even someone who was the most-accomplished collegiate player on the 49ers’ roster.

Foster received medical clearance on Wednesday to take part on Day 1 of practice when the 49ers opened training camp on Friday. It took almost no time for him to stand out.

Foster intercepted a pass from fellow rookie C.J. Beathard early in Friday’s practice. Then, quite a scene followed. Foster returned it into the end zone through a maze of players -- many of whom were standing behind the line of scrimmage and not even involved in the play.

In his three seasons at Alabama, Foster never intercepted a pass. He was known for his toughness and violent sideline-to-sideline tackling ability.

“It was good to get him out there, get him on the field,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I know he’s been chomping at the bit for a while now. It was good to see him go through it full speed, deal with getting aligned right and stuff. I think he got an interception out there today, which was good for him. It was a good first day.”

Foster could quickly turn into the most-exciting player on a team that is severely lacking in star quality. The 49ers targeted him early in the draft process as a player they wanted. Then, he had to check out physically and mentally for the team to determine when he was a person they wanted, too. When he visited the 49ers before the draft, general manager John Lynch became even more intrigued.

“He’s got an excitement that’s infectious,” Lynch said. “He’s an alpha dog. He wants to lead. He’s ready, he’s eager and we are certainly excited to watch him play.”

The 49ers did not believe his shoulder was a major issue. According to national reports, some teams removed him from their draft boards over concerns about his health. The 49ers would have taken him with the No. 3 pick in the draft if Myles Garrett and Solomon Thomas were selected with the top two picks.

Concerns over Foster’s health and a diluted urine sample, which immediately places him into the NFL program for substances of abuse, were the only justifications for his tumble to the end of the first round. The 49ers found a trade partner in the Seattle Seahawks and took Foster with the No. 31 overall pick.

Some teams probably really did have serious concerns about his shoulder. And perhaps those concerns were justified. But, maybe, the teams that could have drafted him feel the need to cover their own backsides for passing on a player who has the look of a special player.

49ers sign top pick Solomon Thomas during first practice

49ers sign top pick Solomon Thomas during first practice

SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers completed contract negotiations with their final unsigned draft pick as the team was going through warm-ups for the first practice of training camp.

Former Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas, whom the 49ers selected with the No. 3 overall pick, signed Friday and was expected to join his teammates later in the day.

The sides agreed to the mandatory four-year contract worth more than $28 million, including a signing bonus of approximately $18.6 million. The deal is expected to be fully guaranteed.

The 49ers also have an option for the fifth season (2021) that must be exercised months after the 2019 season.

Thomas was unable to participate in full-squad workouts during the offseason due to Stanford’s late class schedule. NFL rules prohibit a rookie from attending the offseason program until his school’s classes have concluded for the spring session.

The 49ers – and the vast majority of NFL teams – have not had a contract stalemate with a rookie since the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 2011.

The organization had similar timing with a first-round pick from last year. Guard Joshua Garnett, also from Stanford, signed with the 49ers on the evening before players were scheduled to report to training camp.

Around the NFL, there has been only one notable contract disagreement that prevented a draft pick from reporting to camp in a timely fashion. Defensive lineman Joey Bosa, whom the Chargers selected with the No. 3 pick last year, sat out a month of training camp due to a disagreement over how his bonus would be distributed. Bosa and Thomas are both represented by the agent firm of Creative Artists Agency.