Nick Bosa critical of his rookie season but 49ers teammates see no ceiling

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa, the accolades came in bunches during a dominant rookie season.

By the time it was over, Bosa had earned two NFC Defensive Player of the Week nods, an NFC Defensive Player of the Month honor and took home NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Bosa was such a force that, in his first year of eligibility, he surged to No. 17 on the NFL's list of the top 100 players, as voted on by his peers.

Based on that showing, finding flaws in Bosa's game would seem difficult. Unless, of course, you're Bosa.

While spending his first full NFL offseason working out with his brother Joey in Florida, Bosa spent many hours diving deep into his own game. What he found wasn't nearly as satisfying as his jam-packed trophy case might indicate.

"I've got some pretty concrete things that I've been focusing on," Bosa said.

Bosa's offseason scouting efforts meant going back and watching nearly all of his snaps from his rookie season. The most notable exception? Bosa refuses to watch the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV as the Niners coughed up a two-score lead in the final 10 minutes.

Aside from that, Bosa was detailed in his self-study and came away with a couple of significant things he believes need to improve to make the leap from rookie sensation to full-fledged NFL superstar. At the top of the list is being more intentional in formulating a plan for every game.

Bosa said he entered games last season unsure of what would work and what wouldn't against particular linemen and blocking schemes. That was even more difficult as teams threw more double-teams at him. While Bosa's pass rush win rate (percentage of times he beat his blocker in 2.5 seconds or less) was 12th best in the league at 21.8%, that number dropped to 8.6% when he was double-teamed, which was tied for 53rd in the NFL.

"You have to come in with a plan and not waste any rushes," Bosa said. "So that's one big thing."

Bosa also lamented some of the rushes he was unable to finish a year ago. While he still posted nine sacks and 80 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and four sacks in three postseason games, Bosa easily could have had another six sacks or so had he been able to keep his footing and finish his rushes.

As part of that, Bosa noted he needs to be more consistent with his hand usage and in "closing space" between him and the quarterback.

"That's probably been the biggest emphasis for me, and I've been working that in walk-throughs and in drills all season," Bosa said. "A couple new moves that I might add, and those are the main things, really."

During his rookie season, Bosa was often quick to credit left tackle Joe Staley with helping him get acclimated to the league and offering tips on how to deal with certain blocking techniques tackles would deploy. Staley has since retired but seven-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams has taken his place.

In the opening days of camp, Bosa and Williams have traded victories in pass-rushing situations. It's helped Williams knock off the rust after not playing since late in the 2018 season.

"Probably one of the biggest challenges I'm going to face all year is Nick," Williams said. "I think he's one of the top four or five rushers in the game. To get that work and be able to have that every day and be able to bounce ideas off each other and talk each other through it, I think it's going to work out [as the] best case for me and I hope he gains just as much from me as I do from him."

Behind closed doors in an early training camp meeting, defensive line coach Kris Kocurek stepped in front of his group and reminded them that for as dominant as they were last year, that was in the past and, more important, they can always get better.

It was a message for everyone in the room, from established guys like Dee Ford and Arik Armstead to rookie Javon Kinlaw. And yes, it was meant for Bosa, too.

"As good as he was last year, he was great last year, he was tremendous last year, he has a lot of things that he can clean up to be better," Ford said. "That's everybody. In sports you're never going to be 100 percent. So you always got something to work towards."

One more thing that should help Bosa in Year 2 is he's not coming off the core muscle injury that limited him in the run up to the 2019 draft, the hamstring strain that put him on the sideline in the offseason program or the high ankle sprain that ended his first training camp early.

It's common to hear this refrain from players this time of year, but Bosa says he is in "by far the best shape of his life," cutting a leaner figure aside from his tree trunk thighs.

"Nick is obsessed with preparing to play football, so I know he does that all year-round every single day," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "He came prepared to play football just like he did, but having a healthier offseason, I bet, not having to rehab as much."

If Bosa is able to put it all together, it's not hard to envision him breaking through to reach double digits in sacks and possibly even push for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. As the best young player on one of the league's best defenses, that's the kind of potential that Bosa boasts, even if his teammates refuse to put any cap on the type of player he can become.

"I don't like to put ceilings on anybody," Armstead said. "I think very highly of Nick and think he can do anything he wants to out there. He's extremely talented and he worked extremely hard out there so the sky is the limit for him."