SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the days after he arrived to play for the San Francisco 49ers after being traded from the Carolina Panthers last October, running back Christian McCaffrey and 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa soon realized they were kindred spirits.
It showed up in how they worked during the week, whether in the weight room, on the practice field, in the classroom or even in the kitchen. Bosa quickly noticed that everything McCaffrey did was football-centric. McCaffrey looked at Bosa and saw the same thing.
"When it comes to Bosa, he wants to sack the quarterback, do what he can for the defense and win football games," McCaffrey said. "Football is what I love to do the most in the world, it's my favorite thing and I think it's the same for him. And when it's your favorite thing to do, you just kind of live your life by doing everything humanly possible to try to be the best you can at it."
As the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Bosa has already reached the loftiest heights imaginable. With that award on his resume, Bosa already had outsized expectations for this season, but those have grown since he signed the five-year, $170 million contract with $122.5 million in guarantees that makes him the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL.
Which begs this question of Bosa: What can he do for an encore?
Finally two years removed from the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that ended his 2020 season in Week 2, Bosa entered 2022 at 100% health. The result was the most fully-realized version of Bosa the NFL had seen, as he finished with a league-leading 18.5 sacks to go with 51 tackles, two forced fumbles and 58 quarterback pressures (third in the NFL). Those numbers landed him his first All-Pro nod and third Pro Bowl berth.
All of that will be difficult for Bosa to duplicate or surpass but, even after his 43-day holdout, nobody in San Francisco's locker room is doubting that Bosa has another gear to reach. Bosa spent his time away from the Niners at home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, working out with his brother, Joey, and trainer Todd Rice, and then having his father, John, help out with workouts when Joey and Rice departed for Los Angeles Chargers training camp.
Nick Bosa said much of that time was spent strengthening "everything," improving his mobility and focusing on his hamstrings so they can hold up for a full season. Although the circumstances were different, Bosa had limited snaps in training camp and the preseason in 2019 and 2021. He still had a combined 24.5 sacks in those seasons.
And now that business has been handled, Bosa believes he can achieve even more.
"I am definitely thinking that it's going to be a weight off my shoulders and I'm just going to be able to really not think about all the negative thoughts that come along with playing this game," Bosa said. "And just be free out there and play for one reason ... to win games."
Even on roughly 72 hours notice, nobody would have been surprised if Bosa had racked up three sacks to spark a Week 1 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As it turned out, the Niners had another player getting three sacks in large part due to Bosa's presence. Second-year end Drake Jackson matched his career total with his three-sack game Sunday, while Bosa was left to admire Jackson's work past the din of the extra attention the Steelers directed at him.
Plugging Bosa back into San Francisco's defense was a significant shot in the arm for the league's incumbent top-ranked defense. Not only for his presence but for the opportunities it creates for the rest of a talented line that includes Jackson and tackles Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead.
"It's Nick Bosa," safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. said. "Everybody was happy to have him back. Not only is he a great player on the field but he's a great teammate. So having that type of leader, having that type of presence on the field with you is always going to be something huge. He always has to be accounted for, you've got to have multiple eyes on him and obviously it allows everybody else to kind of do their job. When everybody else start making plays, obviously Nick Bosa is going to start making plays.
"He's kind of the straw that stirs this drink, the best defensive player in the league."
Bosa played 34 snaps and finished with two tackles and three pressures, with coach Kyle Shanahan saying Bosa played well against the run in his limited snaps. As Shanahan also noted, Bosa was the target of most of Pittsburgh's blocking schemes, as he was double-teamed on 43.5% of his pass-rush snaps from the edge.
As Bosa gets settled in, his workload will also continue to increase and, so long as they continue to produce, Bosa's linemates should draw attention of their own and potentially take some of the extra attention away from Bosa.
"That's been the case really since Nick's been here," Shanahan said. "And it's really why we wanted to go out and get Javon. Thought that would make a big difference. It's been so great to get Armstead back and have the offseason he has had and just being healthy really for the first time because he struggled with that all last year. So both of those guys just playing at that level and Drake, the offseason he had, it was real cool to see him get some benefits from it and some success in the game."