The San Francisco 49ers have gone in a very clear direction over the past two drafts: beef up the defensive line. They did this when they were running a 3-4 defense, and got some guys who weren’t necessarily the best fits in a traditional 3-4 alignment. Now they are switching to a 4-3 defense (and ran so much nickel in the first place that the difference may actually be negligible) and things are starting to look interesting.
San Francisco has had some good luck on the defensive line for a long time. Jim Tomsula, for as terrible a head coach as he was, happened to be a great defensive line coach whom the players loved. Things didn’t seriously regress without him a year ago however, and the 49ers have always been good at getting good value out of their defensive linemen.
They spent high picks on Tank Carradine, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner in recent years. Carradine hasn’t panned out. Armstead and Buckner are both from Oregon and both have immense ceilings, but are still very raw. The 49ers got some good value out of Quinton Dial, who signed an extension recently as well.
Glenn Dorsey was a good free agency pickup, but he found himself injured often. Ian Williams also was a great UDFA pickup a few years back, but after breaking out he never got healthy again. Ronald Blair, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Taylor Hart, Chris Jones and Mike Purcell were also all in the picture but were also-rans.
With the switch to a 4-3 defense, Aaron Lynch is now listed as a defensive end. In the free agent market, the 49ers re-signed Jones to a one-year deal, and one of their bigger signings was Earl Mitchell, who they signed through the 2020 season. Mitchell will play on the interior with the 49ers.
Both Dorsey and Jerod-Eddie also hit the open market, and both remain unsigned. The 49ers didn’t do much else at the position, with Mitchell being the only significant addition.
The 49ers have Lynch and Carradine for one more season. Both players have to get their act together. For Lynch, he needs to stay in shape and on the field. Carradine just needs to show something positive after being mediocre for the first few years of his career.
Buckner and Armstead are the big names to watch, and both are under contract for the foreseeable future. They should both earn strating jobs, likely along with Mitchell and Dial, though Lynch will try and get a spot from Armstead or Dial. Jones, Puurcell and Alex Balducci are interior depth while Blair, Moore and Carradine are outside depth, though the 49ers obviously won’t carry all of them on the roster next season.
Ultimately, there’s not a lot of room for the 49ers to add a rookie on the defensive line. They could use a big-bodied guy on the interior, but the Mitchell signing likely makes that a non-need for at least a couple years — long enough for the 49ers to figure out what they’ve got with Buckner, Armstead and Lynch.
Below, I’m going to do what I’ve been doing and list some players from the upcoming NFL Draft at the position. But I’m not going to look at first- or second-round guys because there’s no real chance of the 49ers getting one that early as far as I’m concerned.
This isn’t a definitive list, so if there’s somebody you especially like, post about him in the comments.
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M: OK, I lied. I am including one guy from the first couple rounds, and that’s because the defensive line almost always has at least one “can’t-miss” prospect in each draft. This year, that’s Garrett, and he’ll likely be off the board before the 49ers pick at No. 2 overall. He’s as athletic as anybody else in the league, he’s got an amazing first-step, his acceleration is incredible, his hips are second to none. He has an array of moves and he’s a game-changer. He would be a pretty darn significant luxury pick for the 49ers. But very few would argue with it.
Jarron Jones, DT, Notre Dame: A big guy with 45 tackles, 11 for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble last season, Jones has a wide skillset and can do anything asked of him. He’s a little raw and lacks consistency, but if he’s around in the fourth round he’s a versatile guy with a high ceiling.
Carlos Watkins, DT, Clemson: Watkins is one of my favorite players in the draft. He’s got great speed off the line and has a nose for the ball. Like Jones, he has a very high ceiling but is raw, and would also represent a good value in the fourth round.
Vincent Taylor, DT, Oklahoma State: He’s got great speed and has enough strength to compete with the best interior linemen in the league. He’s one of my sleeper draft crushes, and could be around as late as the fifth round.
Ryan Glasgow, DT, Michigan: I like his nose for the ball in the running game, and like his high motor. He’s a late-round guy and will definitely be a Day 3 selection.
Daeshon Hall, DE, Texas A&M: Maybe you didn’t notice him due to Garrett, but Hall was quietly productive and disruptive. He’s got speed and was very, very good against the run.
Tarell Basham, DE, Ohio: Another sleeper pick, I think Basham has the skillset to be a top-flight defensive end in a 4-3 defense. He impressed at the Senior Bowl to put his name on draft boards around the league.
Garrett Sickels, DE, Penn State: I’m surprised he came out early, but 47 tackles, 12.5 for a loss and six sacks in 2016 gave him an opportunity to be a Day 3 pick in the NFL Draft. I like him.