SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The most glaring need for the San Francisco 49ers this offseason was clear after the defense set records for futility with just seven takeaways and two interceptions last season.
The team’s first two big moves of the new league year were made to address that deficiency with the additions of an edge rusher in Dee Ford, who has a propensity for strip sacks, and a speedy linebacker in Kwon Alexander, who has a knack for finding the ball.
“That wasn’t fun to watch,” general manager John Lynch said Thursday. “It is something we have to live with. It’s a reality, and we needed to change that. These are the type of players that we believe can reverse that trend. Starting with Kwon. He’s always around the ball. There’s so many things to like, but that is definitely something that jumps. And then Dee, he has a knack for getting the ball out. Eight forced fumbles last year, and that first step is lethal. We think that can help our entire team get that virus going, where we’re taking away the ball on a regular basis.”
The 49ers paid a big price for these additions, trading a 2020 second-round pick to Kansas City to acquire Ford and then giving him a five-year, $87.5 million contract, and signing Alexander to a four-year deal worth $54 million.
Ford had a career-high 13 sacks last season and led the NFL with seven forced fumbles. He also led all edge rushers with 84 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, making him exactly the kind of playmaker the 49ers lacked on defense this past season.
“It’s really a mindset and muscle memory,” Ford said of forcing turnovers. “It’s not really an intricate skill to have. It’s just a mindset. Most guys get to the quarterback and just want to take him down. Just switch the mentality and knock the ball out. You have to work it. Everything happens so fast so it needs to be muscle memory to go for the ball.”
The 49ers haven’t had an edge rusher reach double digits in sacks since Aldon Smith had 19 1/2 in 2012 and have the fifth-fewest overall sacks in the NFL the past six seasons. DeForest Buckner led the team with 12 sacks this past season, mostly from an interior spot.
Alexander, coming off a torn ACL, has six career interceptions, six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and seven sacks in 46 games.
“Speed and violence affect the quarterback and make people do stupid things before they want to,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Both of these guys have a lot of speed, and they both play very violent.”
With Ford slated to start at defensive end in the Leo position on San Francisco’s defense, the strategy in the draft could be altered. The Niners have the second overall pick and could be in position to take Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, who is projected to play the same role.
Now they could be in position to move down in the draft or look at a rush linebacker like Josh Allen.
“We’re evaluating everyone,” Lynch said. “Having Dee just makes us a better football team, and the draft’s something separate. Yes, those two do interact at some point, but we’ll see. We’re going to go out there and look. At No. 2, you want to have a great football player. That’s what we’re looking for and we’ll see where it ends up.”
The 49ers also signed cornerback Jason Verrett to a one-year deal, linebacker David Mayo to a two-year contract, and agreed on a one-year deal to bring back safety Antone Exum.
Verrett is a 2014 first-round pick by the Chargers and made the Pro Bowl in 2015. But he has played only five games the past three seasons after suffering knee injuries in 2016 and ’17 and then tearing his Achilles tendon during a conditioning test on the first day of training camp last year.
Verrett will compete with 2017 third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon and 2018 third-rounder Tarvarius Moore for the starting spot across from Richard Sherman.
“It’s a smile now, cry later type of thing for me,” Verrett said of his run of injuries. “It was a lot of dark moments dealing with the injuries, but I came out of the tunnel and I’m ready to get things rolling.”
Mayo was a special teams standout for Carolina who offers depth at inside linebacker for San Francisco.
Exum spent the past two seasons with the 49ers and started seven games at safety in 2018.
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