What Makes Nick Bosa So Good? Let the Experts Explain

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The N.F.L. has no shortage of great football families.

The Mannings produce exceptional quarterbacks. The Longs — the father, Howie, and the son, Chris — were defensive mainstays. Don’t bother trying to count all the members of the Matthews clan.

Now we have the Bosas.

The five players who recorded the most quarterback pressures this season, according to Pro Football Focus, have a combined 28 seasons of N.F.L. experience. Just behind them, at No. 6, is Nick Bosa, who was drafted out of Ohio State less than nine months ago.

That puts Bosa in position to win the same award that his older brother, Joey, a star defensive end for the Chargers, collected in 2016: defensive rookie of the year.

Nick Bosa, also a defensive end, totaled 80 sacks, hurries and hits for the San Francisco 49ers, tormenting offenses with a blend of power, speed and technical expertise amplified by a sophistication uncommon for his age, particularly at that position. The 49ers head coach, Kyle Shanahan, has joked that Bosa has been learning pass-rush moves since he was 3.

That wouldn’t be surprising given that his father, John, was also an N.F.L. defensive end; after being picked in the first round of the 1987 draft, John Bosa played three seasons with the Miami Dolphins.

By his second game with San Francisco, Bosa was drawing two blockers and sometimes a third. In his seventh game, four days after he turned 22, he had three sacks and an interception against the Carolina Panthers.

“He loves close-quarter combat,” said Robert Saleh, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.

Ahead of the 49ers’ playoff game on Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings, The New York Times spoke with an array of experts to learn why Bosa has excelled this season. They were effusive.

“God puts his hands on certain people’s shoulders and just says, ‘You’re gifted, now what are you going to do with that?’” said Howie Long, the league’s defensive player of the year in 1985, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and now a Fox analyst. “He’s one of those guys. He’s built for football.”

Here is some of what the other experts had to say:

Interview excerpts have been edited for clarity.

Trevor Pryce recorded 91 sacks for three teams over 14 seasons: Nick Bosa looks like he does one exercise a week, and that’s squat. He has never skipped leg day.

Richard Dent, who amassed 137.5 sacks in 15 seasons, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: When the 49ers drafted Bosa, it looked like somebody at Ohio State knows some fundamentals about footwork.

Larry Johnson Sr., the defensive line coach at Ohio State, has tutored 15 Big Ten defensive players, or linemen, of the year: He’s got absolutely unbelievable eye-hand coordination. It’s like he’s catching a fly out of the air.

Mike McGlinchey is the 49ers’ starting right offensive tackle: He’s so good at seeing how offensive linemen move and feeling it out during the rush that he can feel imbalances, he can feel shifts of weight.

Johnson: We want the tackle to stop his feet, panic, and when you do that, if I get too close to your space, what do you start doing? You step backward or you shoot your hands to get you off. Bosa gets right into your face. That’s why you see Nick always closing the fight.

Long: When you get in the league, your physical elevator is through the roof and your mental elevator’s in the basement. Throughout the course of your career, the elevators are moving in different directions, and somewhere in the middle you hit your peak — 28, 29 — and the intellectual and physical side pair up. By the time your mental elevator is through the roof, your physical elevator’s in the basement and you can’t do a damn thing about it. His mental elevator is two floors ahead of where it should be right now.

McGlinchey: When we were going against each other a lot in camp, to study the film it’s like, “All right, this is what he did to me today.” And then it would be something completely different tomorrow that you have to fix again. It’s that process of not being able to prepare for just one thing.

Pryce: The closer you are to the tackle, you make him make a decision right now. Nick gets as close to him as possible and makes a fight in the phone booth, because he knows his hands are better. It’s a much more cerebral way of playing the game than I’ve ever known.

Long: The way he takes on a block, the way he sheds a block, the way he plays blocking combinations, it all lends to an extended career. Because he’s so technically sound.

Pryce: He’s beyond technically sound. Technically sound is what I was. He’s technically savvy.

Long: More often than not, you have guys that are one-trick ponies running around the corner or they might have one secondary move, occasionally. He can set moves up. He can go up and under. He can beat you around the corner. Or he can use power.

Dent: He uses his feet like he uses his hands. That means no matter what he’s doing with his hands or his shoulders or his head, his feet always continue moving up field.

Long: He can play third-and-1 as well as he can play third-and-10. His fourth quarter looks like his first quarter.

McGlinchey: If you’re on him, he still finds a way to keep moving toward the quarterback, and that’s what’s really hard. Most guys don’t have his mind-set of go, go, go, either. And that’s as much of a weapon as anything else.

Johnson: He’s starting to get used to the chipping and then two guys blocking him. At the start, he was rushing and guys started chipping. Whoa, what was that. Now they’re doing it every play. Why? Because it’s important to shut him down.

Shanahan: There’s certain edge rushers — there’s a few of them in this league, and Bosa is one of them — but when those guys can affect the quarterback on any play, you’ve got to be very smart. I don’t care who the tackle is, there are certain type of rushers, if the guy he’s going against is a really good player and he knows you’re throwing it every down, that guy is not going to be able to block him eventually.

Saleh: His movement skills, his instincts in pass rush, his feel in pass rush, is beyond what a rookie feels.

Pryce: I had a coach my rookie year who said he loves playing rookies because they’re too stupid to know they’re not supposed to be that good. And I think Nick Bosa doesn’t understand that he’s not supposed to dominate the game the way that he has.