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San Francisco 49ers

Rookies foreshadow significant improvement on 49ers defense

Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware (32) tries to get past San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster (56) and safety Eric Reid (35) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game in Kansas City, Mo., Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

No team added more significant defensive talent in the 2017 NFL Draft than the San Francisco 49ers. The first dress rehearsals for both Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster were rather impressive. The two standouts performed well in a 27-17 comeback win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Thomas, the No. 3 pick in April, is still running behind Tank Carradine on the Niners’ defensive line, but the Stanford product announced his presence the minute he hit the field, pressuring Kansas City backup quarterback Tyler Bray into an interception.

Part of Thomas’s impressive skill set includes versatility. He lined up at both defensive end and defensive tackle while playing nearly 30 snaps.

By Week 1 of the regular season, Thomas should be firmly entrenched in the starting lineup on a front that is quietly loaded with talented options.

Foster, a top-10 talent who fell to the bottom of the first round due to health concerns and off-field worries on the part of NFL teams, started on Friday night despite a balky ankle. He was tried in the middle and on the weak side by Niner defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

Foster started at the Will linebacker spot and moved inside once NaVorro Bowman’s day was done. He finished with two tackles in just under 30 reps but showed tremendous feel for the position. He came up with a pass breakup in the end zone that should have been an interception, as well as a stop at the goal line.

Those two players could be stars sooner rather than later, but third-round cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon also could have a significant role on this team. His debut was an uneventful one, which could be spun as a positive considering the position he plays.

Entering with the second-teamers, Witherspoon was never targeted despite being on the field for 28 defensive snaps.

Coming off an ugly 2-14 season in which it was ranked 32nd defensively, San Francisco has a chance to turn things around very quickly on that side of the football.

The impact of not having to deal with the unintended consequences of Chip Kelly’s tempo-based offense will bring a natural uptick on its own. Then consider the impressive bodies the 49ers have up front, starting with back-to-back top-10 picks in DeForest Buckner and Thomas.

Add the lengthy Arik Armstead as well as Carradine, and the Niners have a world of talent lining up in front of the always-productive Bowman and Foster.

The back end doesn’t look quite as impressive on paper, which should give Witherspoon the opportunity to garner playing time as well.

It’s not the 1985 Chicago Bears just yet, but this also isn’t the 2016 Niners.

A sound scheme will make things much more difficult for opposing offensive coordinators. Saleh has every opportunity to become a big name in this industry very quickly.

The rookies general manager John Lynch has given to his coordinator should put the 49er defense in position to go from dead last in the NFL to the top half of the league.

That is the kind of thing that gets noticed.

-John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

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