The San Francisco 49ers are making a switch from a 3-4 defense to more of a 4-3, and while they will spend more time in the nickel, the change to a base 4-3 look is noteworthy. The 49ers have drafted for a 3-4, but the coaching staff and GM John Lynch have all said the 49ers current group of linemen are all versatile, and should be able to move into the 4-3.
The 49ers have a variety of options for three of the four pieces of the four-man base front. However, the LEO role has some question marks. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh met with the media for the first time, and he got a chance to go into detail about what he sees for the position.
Aaron Lynch is viewed as the guy who would pencil in at the LEO position for the time being. The team could decide to draft some additional options, but for the start of the offseason workout program, Lynch would be in that role. Saleh was asked how he sees Lynch fitting in, and he was clear in his answer.
“Aaron, he’s on the defensive line. We’re going to try to keep his hand in the ground at all times. A couple years ago, when he came out of the draft, we were looking at him as a possible LEO. So, he has all the traits that you would like. Now it’s a matter of us trying to work with him to best utilize what he’s, in my mind, designed to do and that’s get after the passer.”
Saleh does think other guys can handle the role. He talked about Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, and Dekoda Watson all being able to handle a combination of the SAM and LEO roles. He even said Arik Armstead is capable of it. He recognizes Armstead is not a prototype for that role, but he is a versatile player.
Saleh was asked how he defines the position, and he pointed to this player as the premier pass rusher, who has, “[h]is hair is on fire, [and] just get[s] after the quarterback.”
When asked for some specific traits he looks for in the LEO, Saleh pointed instead to examples of players who have held the role in his past defenses, and other defenses. They are some notable names:
“I’ll name some names that have been LEOs in the past, even if they haven’t been attached to this system. People who have been attached to this system, you’re looking at [former Seattle Seahawks DE] Chris Clemons, [Seattle Seahawks DE] Cliff Avril, [Jacksonville Jaguars DE] Yannick Ngakoue, [Jacksonville Jaguars DE] Dante Fowler, [Atlanta Falcons LB] Vic Beasley. People outside of the system, you’d look at [Denver Broncos LB] Von Miller, [Oakland Raiders DE] Khalil Mack. Back in his heyday, [former 49ers LB] Charles Haley would have been a guy that would have been a LEO.”
The 49ers currently hold the No. 2 and No. 34 picks in the draft. Myles Garrett would be the ideal pick, but he will not be there at No. 2. Derek Barnett is an intriguing option, leaving Tennessee as the all-time leader in sacks. Saleh thinks he has elite-level “get off,” and “does a lot of really, really good things from a pass rush standpoint.” Whether or not that’s enough to get him drafted by the 49ers remains to be seen.