Less than six short years ago, DeMeco Ryans found himself in uniform, preparing for what would be his last game as a linebacker in the NFL in a Week 16 matchup against the New York Giants. Now just 37 years old, his transition from the nucleus of a defense to the sideline, while looked upon as a massive challenge, couldn’t have been smoother.
The San Francisco 49ers were a skeleton of themselves last fall. With injuries in abundance, they never found their footing, leading to a 6-10 record and a finish in the cellar of the NFC West. Prior to Week 9 in 2020, the 49ers found themselves with roughly $80M in cap dollars tied to the litany of starters on injured reserve prior to their loss to the Green Bay Packers. Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Solomon Thomas, Dee Ford, Ezekiel Ansah, the names ran on and on for players who enjoyed an amount of time on the shelf for head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s group.
Fast forward through a busy offseason that saw the arrival of Trey Lance and the departure of Saleh, and San Francisco has found themselves back in an opportune spot to dominate with Ryans set to lead one of football’s most feared defensive groups.
“S.W.A.R.M.”... It’s Ryan’s motto for his group of 11 defenders.
“Special Work ethic, And, Relentless Mindset.”
San Francisco has yet to don their scarlet and gold uniforms this fall in a game that counts, but the reputation of the former Pro Bowler has quickly echoed through the 49ers’ headquarters, to the point where many believe Ryans’ unit could develop into a group just as good, or better, than the units Saleh led from 2017-2020.
“Having Dee and Arden [Key] and Bosa and Samson [Ebukam], having all those guys available we can do a lot of things,” Ryans said. “All those guys are very talented and you have unlimited options with what you can do with all those guys. All of them are really great talents. All of them are awesome at rushing the passer. We want to be able to utilize them, utilize their strengths, to help us win games.”
All in all, Ryans’ job couldn’t be too difficult, right?
With the seemingly never-ending list of talent within the 49ers defensive room, headlined by two of the league's most skilled athletes in Bosa and Fred Warner, Ryan’s surely will enjoy his fair share of mishaps in deploying certain blitzes or cover schemes, but a lack of talent unable mask his mistakes is simply not present. Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, will look to pick right back up from where he left off in his first season following a torn ACL last fall. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of The Year, Bosa totaled nine sacks and 16 TFLs in his professional debut season, and enters his third campaign as one of the league favorites for Defensive Player of the Year, right alongside Warner.
You may not have heard of the 6-foot-3 power-speed combo that is Warner as much as you have Bosa. A product out of BYU compared to the prestige that is Bosa’s Ohio State, Warner is flat-out one of the most electric defenders the league has to offer—he deserves much more respect. Just 24 years old, Warner has amassed more than 115 tackles in each of his three seasons, serving as the poster child of the modern NFL linebacker. With the ability to move downhill, flip his hips in space, and run sideline to sideline each on all three downs, Warner’s skill set offers Ryans a true green dot within the middle of his defense unlike any in football.
With the level of experience and pop Ryan has to use to his advantage, by no means will his defensive scheme replicate Saleh’s with little turnover at all three levels. He has his guys being more aggressive, playing faster in space, while keeping their eyes up to attack the rock.
“When you walk in the building, you can feel him,” 49ers defensive assistant James Bettcher said of Ryan. “He might be three rooms away, but you can just feel it… He [Ryans] has elite energy when he comes into the building.”
It’s a lifestyle as a defender Ryans has engraved into the minds of his defenders this summer in hopes of a major return come kickoff.