American Football

Why the trades for Jordan Willis and Charles Omenihu were a massive success for the 49ers

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Los Angeles Chargers v San Francisco 49ers
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The 49ers received tremendous production from each edge rusher using Day 3 picks

Jordan Willis and Charles Omenihu’s time with the 49ers may be over, but the impact these two players had on the organization will remain well beyond their departures to their new teams.

This 49ers team has its identity rooted in its deep defensive line group, and in a couple of short seasons both Willis and Omenihu became fixtures on the unit that is the backbone of a very talented roster.

Both players were acquired via mid-season trade, with the compensation the 49ers sent out in both deals paling in comparison to the production they ultimately received from Willis and Omenihu during their time in the Bay Area.

Willis joined the team in October 2020, a move that at the time seemed like a shot in the dark for some depth at the position after a nightmare start to the season. After losing Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Ezekiel Ansah for the season, the 49ers were desperate for any kind of contribution off the edge.

In the deal, the 49ers sent the New York Jets a 2022 sixth-round pick in exchange for Willis and a 2021 seventh-round pick. Willis was a third-round pick out of Kansas State with an impressive athletic profile, but underwhelming production with his previous team. Sound familiar?

Willis saw action with the 49ers in seven games in 2020, recording nine pressures and 2.5 sacks on 119 pass rushing snaps. The flashes of potential were there and the 49ers took a chance on Willis’ athleticism and the developmental ability of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, re-signing Willis to a one-year deal prior to the 2021 season.

This was the year that Willis forever etched himself into 49ers lore with a heroic postseason performance on the frozen tundra in Green Bay. Willis was instrumental in two key special teams plays in that game, one of which gets largely overlooked due to the magnitude of the second.

With Green Bay leading 7-0 just before halftime, the Packers lined up for a chip shot field goal to stretch the lead to double digits. Willis was able to chop down the arm of a Packers’ blocker, which opened up a lane in the D gap for Jimmie Ward to block this field goal attempt and keep it a one score game at the break.

In a contest where points were at a premium, this play by Willis ended up having a significant outcome on the end result.

However, the iconic play that will forever be synonymous with Willis came late in the fourth quarter, with San Francisco trailing by a touchdown and the Packers setting up to punt the ball back to an anemic 49ers offense that had scored just three points all game long.

Willis bull rushed the center, got his arm up and got a piece of the ball coming off Packers’ punter Cory Bojorquez’s foot. The blocked punt was quickly scooped up and ran back for a touchdown by Talanoa Hufanga, and the 49ers who were on the brink of elimination suddenly had life again.

The impact that Willis had in this game alone made the draft capital and financial investments made into him by the 49ers well beyond worth it. Any team would part with a late day-three pick if the promise was a playoff win as a direct result of the transaction.

Willis finished his 49ers tenure with 7.5 sacks and 14 QB hits across 26 regular season contests, and six pressures in the six career postseason games he played in with the 49ers. That included a pressure that led directly to an interception in the 49ers Wild Card win over the Dallas Cowboys last year.

Omenihu was acquired just prior to the trade deadline in the 2021 season. The 49ers sent a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Houston Texans in exchange for the athletic edge rusher, who played a massive role as the primary pass rushing threat opposite of Bosa in 2022.

Omenihu had nine total pressures in his first nine games with the 49ers, with his major breakthrough coming in the 49ers Wild Card win over the Dallas Cowboys. In a game where San Francisco was without Bosa and Fred Warner for a large stretch, Omenihu was arguably the most important defender on the field for the 49ers.

Omenihu led all players with six total pressures in that game, including 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

That Wild Card weekend magic followed Omenihu into the following season, where he was the author of the game defining play that permanently swung momentum in the 49ers favor.

With the Seahawks trailing 23-17 and driving deep into 49ers territory, Omenihu was able to get home on a loop around the right side of Seattle’s offensive line, and knock the ball out of the hands of quarterback Geno Smith. The 49ers recovered, and the Seahawks never did.

Like Willis, Omenihu’s tangible contributions to postseason success alone would justify the capital invested into acquiring him. But Omenihu did so much more for this 49ers team, providing them with a legitimate number two pass rushing threat to pair with the defensive player of the year in Bosa.

In the 2022 season, Omenihu recorded 62 total pressures at a pressure rate of over 13 percent. Perhaps Omenihu’s greatest value came in the form of his versatility, regularly kicking inside and dominating as a pass rushing threat from the interior.

To get a more precise value of what the 49ers got in return, I wanted to put into context the value of the capital they parted with. The sixth-round picks the 49ers parted with, coincidentally enough, are both the 207th overall selections in the 2022 and 2023 drafts respectively.

Here is a history of the players who have been selected in that draft slot at 207 overall in the last five drafts:

2018 – Equanimious St. Brown

St. Brown has recorded 60 receptions for 903 yards across 56 games with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers

2019 – Ulysses Gilbert, III

Gilbert III has recorded 90 total snaps in his NFL career and has not played a regular season snap since the 2021 season.

2020 – Isaiah Hodgins

Hodgins has 46 receptions for 500 yards in his three career NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants.

2021 – Jonathan Marshall

Marshall has played a total of 77 snaps across two seasons for the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers.

2022 – Doug Kramer

This was the pick the 49ers sent to the Jets for Willis, which ultimately ended up with the Chicago Bears, who selected center Doug Kramer. Prior to the start of the 2022 season, Kramer was placed on injured reserve, and he has yet to appear in a regular season game in the NFL.

Hodgins and St. Brown have spent time as starting level players in the NFL, but overall this is a good illustration of how hard it is to find impact players at this point in the draft. Is there any player on this list that you would trade Omenihu for straight up? Or one that would make a one for one swap for, with you giving up the guaranteed playoff victory that came as a direct result of Willis?

The answer to both is almost assuredly not, which further highlights just how much value the 49ers were able to extract in return for the picks they ultimately parted with to acquire Willis and Omenihu.

It won’t be easy to replace the production the 49ers are losing with both of these players moving on to other teams, but overall, their tenure’s in red and gold was a massive success for a front office that has done a commendable job building a strong team year in and year out.

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