49ers’ Javon Hargrave set to face the man who helped him shine in Philly

49ers’ defensive tackle Javon Hargrave starred on Philadelphia defense coordinated by Jonathan Gannon

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — During the preseason, there was widespread speculation that the Arizona Cardinals would tank the season under rookie head coach Jonathan Gannon.

Why else would general manager Monti Ossenfort release five-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, as well as quarterback Colt McCoy, giving the job to untested Josh Dobbs and making other roster moves that the general public deemed questionable?

Nobody knows when or if Kyler Murray will play this season. But when the Cardinals could have (and should have) beaten Washington and the New York Giants in Weeks 1 and 2, then came back to beat the Dallas Cowboys 28-16, 49ers defensive tackle Javon Hargrave was not surprised.

Hargrave will not be surprised if Arizona gives the 49ers everything they can handle on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.

“I know he’s highly motivated, so he’ll have those boys ready to go,” Hargrave said on Wednesday. “They’re going to play some good basketball.” He’s a smart coach, and I expect him to come up with an excellent game plan for us.”

Hargrave and Gannon are on opposing sides of the field because during their two years together with the Philadelphia Eagles, each assisted the other in becoming more upwardly mobile.

Philadelphia finished second in the NFL in total defense with 301.5 yards per game, trailing only the San Francisco 49ers (300.6). The Eagles had 70 sacks, which was 15 more than Kansas City, which had 55.

Hargrave had a career-high 11 sacks while pushing the pocket from the interior, tying him with teammates Brandon Graham and Josh Sweat for second on the team behind team leader Hasson Reddick. Reddick had 16 sacks during the regular season, not including the one in the NFC Championship game that injured quarterback Brock Purdy’s right elbow.

The Eagles’ season ended with a sackless 38-35 loss to Kansas City in the Super Bowl, but Gannon and Hargrave were hot commodities in the offseason. Arizona hired Gannon, 40, on February 14 to replace Kliff Kingsbury. A month later, on the first day of free agency, the 49ers signed Hargrave, 30, to a four-year contract worth up to $84 million.

Hargrave was regarded as a good pocket pusher but had never had more than 6 1/2 sacks in four years with Pittsburgh and one with Philadelphia before Gannon was hired by coach Nick Sirianni. He had 7 1/2 and 11 points in two seasons with Gannon.

Gannon was hired as a first-time coordinator in 2021 after coaching defensive backs for the Indianapolis Colts from 2018 to 20. Rather than immediately enforcing the law, Hargrave was impressed that Gannon sought his advice.

“He gave me a lot of freedom and talked to me during the week about what I liked and some of the plays he was going to call if we liked them,” Hargrave stated. “He’s one those players’ coaches that listens to players a lot to get the best out of them.”

When training camp began, a video of Gannon greeting his new team went viral, with the first-time head coach receiving harsh criticism for being uninspiring.

Gannon’s style, according to Hargrave, is more about building trust and relationships than being a firebrand.

“He’s slick. “He’ll come talk to you, and he knows exactly what to say to each player,” Hargrave explained. “He knows how to make people believe in what we’re doing to win the game.”

Conversations veered away from Xs and Os and the best way to reach the quarterback.

“We had conversations about life,” Hargrave explained. “We’re both fans of Drake and have discussed attending a concert.” Or just about the new cars we get or the personal issues we’re dealing with at the time.”

Hargrave, who joined the 49ers before Gannon and the Cardinals were able to sign him in free agency, has made an immediate impact on an already stacked defensive front.

In Week 1, he sacked Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and the Giants’ Daniel Jones in Week 3. Hargrave shot the gap so quickly against the Los Angeles Rams that he nearly stole a handoff from quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Hargrave (6-foot-2, 305 pounds) is paired with the more angular Arik Armstead (6-7, 299) inside, with the added benefit of Javon Kinlaw (6-7, 299) finally being healthy enough to play up to his potential as a first-round draft pick in 2020. It’s even allowed the 49ers, who lead the NFL with 41 pressures and eight sacks, to use some five-man fronts under new offensive coordinator Steve Wilks.

Hargrave stated that he and Gannon took a moment to express gratitude for where they ended up in 2023.

“I needed him, and he needed me,” said Hargrave. “I said thank you for everything he’s done and he said the same to me.”

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