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Is It Too Soon To Call Nick Bosa The New Lawrence Taylor?

Nick Bosa is having a rookie season for the ages. After the San Francisco 49ers selected the Ohio State defensive end second overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, their defense has gone from being a laughingstock to making a joke out of enemy offenses. Bosa is tied for seventh in the NFL in sacks despite playing much of the year on a bum ankle — and despite San Francisco having played one fewer game than more than half the teams in the league. In Sunday’s 51-13 win over the Carolina Panthers, Bosa became the first player in franchise history to have three sacks and an interception in the same game.

Teammate Richard Sherman said Bosa should be considered not just for the Rookie of the Year Award but also as the overall Defensive Player of the Year. Only one rookie in history has been named the defensive MVP: Lawrence Taylor of the 1981 New York Giants.1

When you’re being compared to rookie Lawrence Taylor, that’s saying a lot. Here’s how Taylor was described his rookie year:

  • “I’ve seen the movies Superman I and Superman II; now I’m seeing Superman III in person.”2
  • “The best rookie I’ve ever seen at any position.”3
  • “I’m afraid to have him play against my team.”4

And here are Bosa’s reviews after Sunday’s performance:

  • “He’s everything you can ask for.”5
  • “I’m really happy he’s on my team because I don’t want to block him.”6
  • “He’s a freak.”7

Does Bosa deserve to be compared to a player who is widely recognized as the best defensive player in league history? If you look at the overall improvement made by their respective defenses after each player’s arrival, the answer is yes.8

Bosa’s Niners rival Lawrence Taylor’s 1981 Giants

League rank in opposing metrics for the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers before and after Lawrence Taylor and Nick Bosa joined

1980-81 New York Giants rank 2018-19 San Francisco 49ers rank
Opposing Metrics Pre-Taylor Taylor Year 1 Pre-Bosa Bosa Year 1
Points 27 3 28 2
Yards 24 3 13 1
NY/A 26 2 12 1
Passer rating 21 11 31 2

NY/A is net yards per pass attempt, which includes yards lost to sacks.

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

After adding Taylor, the Giants defense improved from 27th in opposing points per game to third. Bosa’s Niners have gone from 28th to second. The Giants moved up 21 spots in yards allowed per game compared with 12 spots for the Niners. In net yards allowed per pass attempt, which factors in yards lost to sacks, the 1981 Giants jumped 24 spots compared with 11 by this year’s Niners. In terms of opposing passer rating, Bosa’s Niners have improved considerably more than Taylor’s Giants, up 29 spots to the Giants’ 10.

We can’t compare respective sacks because they were not officially counted in 1981. (They became an official stat the following season.) But so far this year, the Niners’ defense has the highest rate of sacks per dropbacks (which includes QB scrambles in addition to sacks as pass plays) since ESPN’s Stats & Information Group began tracking that stat in 2001. And its rate of 11.4 percent so far is nearly double last year’s rate, without Bosa (6.2 percent).

So is the case for Bosa closed? Well, not exactly. When you get down to the individual level, Bosa’s performance in rushing the passer, beyond the sacks, is merely good and not outstanding. In terms of Pass Rush Win Rate — the rate that the pass rusher wins his battles with pass blocker(s) — Bosa ranks 24th at 19 percent. But that’s the highest rate on the team.

San Francisco’s defense is setting sack records despite blitzing on just 14.8 percent of dropbacks, the second-lowest rate in the league. And that’s down from 20.3 percent last year, when the Niners’ overall sack rate was just 11th in the league. This juxtaposition of a relatively rare yet effective blitz has enabled Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to keep more defenders in coverage while also having a dominant pass rush. That combination has bedeviled quarterbacks, who are averaging 3.93 yards per dropback against the 49ers, which is also the top mark recorded by any defense since 2001.

Further, Bosa has only recently gotten completely healthy after that preseason ankle injury. In the four games where he’s not been listed on the injury report, he has six of his seven sacks, as well as nine of his 11 tackles for losses.

As we head into Halloween, and the second half of the season, here’s what’s really scary for San Francisco opponents: The best from Bosa may be still yet to come.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Taylor was also the second pick in that year’s draft.

  2. Giants defensive end Gary Jeter.

  3. Giants coach Ray Perkins.

  4. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.

  5. 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman.

  6. 49ers tight end George Kittle

  7. Cardinals QB Kyler Murray.

  8. There were only 28 teams in in the 1980 and 1981 NFL seasons, whereas there are 32 league teams today.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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