It’s hard to imagine where the 49ers would be without rookie defensive end Nick Bosa.
Yet that scenario was very much in play leading up to the NFL Draft last April as the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco’s opponent on Thursday night, were deciding between Bosa and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, a Heisman Trophy winner and dual-threat quarterback who was a perfect fit for new coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Arizona (3-4-1) used the No. 1 pick on Murray despite using a first-rounder the previous year on Josh Rosen, though they weighed keeping Rosen and tapping Bosa to become a centerpiece of their defensive front opposite fearsome pass rusher Chandler Jones.
“We loved Nick Bosa the entire process,” Kingsbury said on a conference call with Bay Area reporters this week. “Phenomenal person, competitor, player. What you’re seeing him do week in and week out is kind of the expectation. We have a coach on our staff who was at Ohio State, (so) I had intimate knowledge of his work ethic and who he is. So we were all on board, all fired up about him.
“We ended up taking Kyler, we thought that was the best move for our organization, but we knew that whoever was going to take Nick was going to get a dominant player in this league.”
Bosa a favorite for rookie of the year
Bosa has emerged as the favorite for defensive rookie of the year and will also be a candidate for defensive player of the year thanks to his fast start. His seven sacks through seven games are already the fourth-most by a rookie in franchise history. According to scouting service Pro Football Focus, Bosa leads the NFL in pressure rate (22 percent) and their pass rush productivity metric.
Bosa is coming off a second signature performance over the weekend when he logged three sacks against the Carolina Panthers and made a highlight reel interception of Kyle Allen on screen pass which he nearly returned for a touchdown. His first signature performance came the last time the 49ers played in prime time when he famously mimicked Baker Mayfield’s flag-planting celebration after a near sack on “Monday Night Football” earlier this month.
It was widely speculated the Cardinals would take Murray, particularly after he officially measured just above 5-foot-10 at the scouting combine, which seemingly answered questions about his diminutive size. Kingsbury, while coaching Texas Tech, had previously said he would draft Murray with the No. 1 pick if he had the chance.
The 49ers are clearly happy Bosa fell to them with the second overall selection. He’s been a key member of a massive turnaround on defensive that’s been integral to the team’s 7-0 start. The 49ers rank in the top two in opponents’ scoring (11.0 points per game, second), yardage (224.4, first), yards per play (4.1, first) and touchdowns per game (1.1, second). They have the league’s top pass defense, allowing just 129 net yards per game.
San Francisco’s defensive front is widely considered the best in the NFL as Bosa joined four other former first-round draft picks – Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas – and the defense has been historically productive.
San Francisco during the past four weeks hasn’t allowed an opponent to pass for more than 100 net yards, marking the first time that’s happened since 1977. It’s the only team in the NFC with five players who have at least three sacks.
Shanahan ‘worried’ Cardinals would take Bosa
So was Kyle Shanahan nervous the Cardinals would foil their plan and take Bosa first overall?
“I was worried about it until the pick,” Shanahan said. “I had a pretty good feeling and hoped that they were going the direction they did. Not that I wanted to play against Kyler either, but we knew we weren’t taking a quarterback. We were really hoping Nick was going to be there but they kept it close to the vest. You never truly knew until the end. I think both teams were real happy.”
The consensus next-best prospect for San Francisco was Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who went No. 3 to the New York Jets. Williams has half a sack in five games after missing two games with an ankle injury and could have complicated San Francisco’s rotation along the defensive line, with Buckner and Armstead already in place.
The 49ers considered trading back from No. 2 had Bosa gone to Arizona. They didn’t need a quarterback, with Jimmy Garoppolo starting the second year of a five-year, $137.5 million contract.
Shanahan wouldn’t reveal the team’s contingency plan when asked about trading back. “Maybe, he said. “We would have done something.”
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh wasn’t so confident Bosa would be donning a gold helmet to begin his pro career.
“I’m a negative Nancy,” Saleh said. “So I’m always thinking that it’s going to go on the wrong end on the stick until it goes positive.”
Murray shows flashes of competence
Murray, 22, has shown flashes of promise during his first NFL season, though he hasn’t recorded a touchdown pass since Oct. 13 in a 34-33 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, owners of the league’s second-worst scoring defense. But his overall numbers have been pedestrian as the Cardinals sit in last place in the competitive NFC West, which is the league’s only division with three teams above .500.
Murray has seven touchdown passes and four interceptions. His 85.8 passer rating ranks 23rd, his 6.8 yards per attempt is 25th and 63.7 percent completion rate is 19th. He’s the league’s second-most productive quarterback on the ground with 279 rushing yards, trailing only Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (576).
Kingsbury doesn’t have any regrets about going with Murray over Bosa.
“His skill set makes him valuable in any offense,” he said. “To be able to run like he can, his accuracy as a passer, his football IQ is really high. He wants to be great and I think that for all us having him here now, watching how he’s evolved in eight games and where we think he can go with his passion for the game, his passion for wanting to be great, we’re excited about it.”
The Cardinals offer the 49ers a unique challenge. They use four receiver sets (10 personnel) on 42 percent of their snaps while the next-closest team is the Seahawks at 8 percent. It forces the defense to spread out and try to slow Kingsbury’s quick passing game, which could be the Cardinals’ best way to slow San Francisco’s pass rush.
Saleh, meanwhile, will have to strike a balance between sticking with his team’s strength and adjusting to Kingsbury’s multi-pronged passing attack.
“For us we’re going to play our game,” he said. “We feel comfortable with how we match up. Whether they’re in 10 or 11 (personnel groupings), it doesn’t really matter, we can still get calls that create the matchups that we need to be able to go play our defense. It does pose a problem, but not something that needs to be panicked over.”
Saleh indicated second-year safety Tarvarius Moore could get increased playing time at free safety while moving Jimmie Ward into the slot in dime formations. Moore started the first three games of the season while Ward was dealing with a fractured thumb.