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The future of the 49ers defense, Part 2: Looking to the draft

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Having analysed the defensive scheme that the 49ers will likely echo, which players might the 49ers target in the top rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft?

NCAA Football: Texas Kickoff-Oklahoma vs Houston
Houston Cougars OLB Tyus Bowser
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Part 1 focussed on the Jaguars’ defensive scheme in 2016; how the Jaguars’ players were utilized; how the 49ers’ players might fit the scheme and how the scheme might be adapted to them.

Part 2 will focus on prospective draftees for this scheme within the top 3 rounds

Towards the end of writing part 1, it seemed like a good idea to give some thoughts on potential draftees on the defensive side of the ball might fit the 49ers’ new scheme.

The 49ers should place an emphasis on solidifying the quality of their short to intermediate defense (run game and short and intermediate passing). This will give them the biggest chance of success by forcing offenses into third and long situations regularly. This was a strength of the Jaguars and a reason for them ranking so highly in rushing and passing yards per attempt. Additionally, the 49ers should be looking to add players who can rush the passer.

This is a selection of my personal favorites and not a full complement of options. Additionally, all prospective rounds listed take into account where I think the 49ers will be picking and where the player is relative to that. For example, Kevin King could probably go anywhere starting around pick No. 25, but I have him listed as a prospective second rounder for the 49ers as it is most likely that the 49ers would consider taking him at pick 34.

Prospective 1st Rounders

Malik Hooker, S (6’1, 206lbs)

Quick breakdown: Would go straight into the team as the deep center fielder, allowing Ward to play nickel and increasing competition at outside corner.

Selection of plays:

Interception vs Clemson
Successful blitz
Run defense
Coverage hit

Bottom line: Unbelievable range and question marks over his tackling are technical rather than willingness-based so should not weigh too heavily. Flies around the field and can certainly lay the wood when he wants to. Does seem to have the most success as a tackler as a box safety.

His ability to make plays on the ball will make most quarterbacks second guess themselves when throwing deep. Hooker is a considerably better option than Tashaun Gipson was in Jacksonville which is required as the 49ers do not have the same quality of cornerback (though Rashard Robinson’s development will be fascinating to watch).

Reuben Foster, LB (6’0, 229lbs)

Quick breakdown: Could play as the WILL or MIKE linebacker. As a WILL would be slightly worse in coverage than Telvin Smith, but a more effective run defender and blitzer, allowing for some play calling versatility.

Selection of plays:

Blitz through A gap
Range in run defense
Coverage of flat zone
PBU vs WR running drag causing INT

Bottom line: Freak of nature at the position - Austin Baumer of Optimum Scouting stated he was comparable to CJ Mosley in coverage, Reggie Ragland in run defense and Dont’a Hightower as a rusher. Can fulfil all the coverage requirements expected of him. Seems to have a sixth sense when diagnosing run plays in particular, but can sometimes get himself swamped by blockers. Allows for the fronts to be very diverse due to threat as a blitzer. The double/single A gap pressure front would be incredibly threatening with Bowman paired with Foster.

Solomon Thomas, DL (6’3, 273lbs)

Quick breakdown: Best suited to play strong side defensive end and slide inside on passing downs, though he could potentially be an (albeit not prototypical) option at LEO on base downs in addition to the aforementioned roles.

Selection of plays:

Run stuff from 5 tech
Rush off edge, only a hold prevents the sack
Interior rush through center for a sack
Game winning sack

Bottom line: Comparisons with Michael Bennett are not far fetched. Thomas has the same unique ability to set the edge or blow plays up in the backfield on rushing downs as well as being an explosive option as a pass rusher. The vast majority of his rushing came from the interior in college but his attributes are translatable to the edge as well if required, allowing the 49ers to be very multiple with their defensive line and pair Thomas with Buckner and Armstead should he be drafted. If paired with an athletic OTTO on the weak side, I have no doubt he could play the LEO role on rushing downs. Thomas was a beast at college level and there is no reason for Thomas why that would not transfer to the NFL.

If you have a spare 20 minutes (actually even if you don’t) click this link http://draftbreakdown.com/video/solomon-thomas-vs-north-carolina-2016/ and watch him go to work

PREFERRED PICK: Foster

The FO are essentially spoilt for choice here with three hugely talented players. I have left Jamal Adams off this list due to the 49ers having Tartt and Reid at the strong safety spot.

To me Hooker and Foster fill bigger needs than Thomas and thus he would probably be my least favourite pick of the three best defensive players available assuming Garrett is off the board. Their very similar talent levels make “need” a bit of a tiebreaker here.

With Hooker and Foster (as with Thomas it must be said), a quite valid argument could be made for either of them as they are absolutely sensational talents. I agonised over who to choose for a significant period of time, a decision made all the more difficult by the knowledge that these were the two best prospects to emerge at their position for some years.

In the end, I went with Foster for several reasons:

A: The 49ers run defense was putrid in 2016 and Foster should instantly upgrade that particular area.

B: Linebackers are absolutely crucial to the success of this scheme and this is an area with major question marks over it, at all three positions. Even the supposed surest thing - Bowman at MIKE - has some uncertainty surrounding his availability and performance levels, as he is coming off his second major injury in four seasons.

Foster could play MIKE, or alternatively be a force at WILL against the run, as a blitzer, as well as in coverage on tight ends, running backs and even slot receivers. Shutting down the short to intermediate areas of the field should be the bread and butter of a defense and it is not clear if the 49ers have the personnel to do that at any of the three linebacker spots. It’s arguable that the Falcons lost the Super Bowl precisely because of their inability to shut down these areas.

C: Foster is the best linebacker to come out of college in recent years and you can build your defense around him for a decade. He flies around the field and knocks offensive players' heads off at every opportunity.

Prospective 2nd Rounders

Tyus Bowser, LB (6’3, 247lbs)

Quick breakdown: OTTO linebacker who can defend the run, rush the passer and cover running backs and tight ends. Can also be a sub-package edge rusher.

Selection of plays:

Pursuit and tackle
Edge rush
Rush through B gap, forces a safety
Drops into zone, easy change of direction and coverage on WR

Bottom line: Bowser finds himself at the midway point between the Falcons’ Vic Beasley and the Jaguars’ Myles Jack. He is a better in coverage and against the run than Beasley (and only marginally worse as a rusher) and a better rusher than Jack. Louisville linemen took to tackling rather than blocking him when he played them. His significant versatility can be a major help to Robert Saleh. He can play as the OTTO linebacker, having the strength to line up on the strong side and the speed and to line up on the weak side, as well as rushing the passer. He can cover tight ends and running backs in space and can also be a sub-package rusher on passing downs.

Jordan Willis, Edge (6’4, 255lbs)

Quick breakdown: LEO/sub-package rusher in year one who could develop into a stud at the position. Is a very good run defender as well so no reason why he couldn't beat Aaron Lynch out as the starter.

Selection of plays:

Edge rush and forced fumble
Edge rush, sets up tackle, spin move and sack
Edge rush leading to sack
Run defense, easily disengages and makes tackle

Bottom line: Unlike a lot of his fellow edge defenders, Willis is equally gifted as a run defender and pass rusher. He has an explosive first step and possesses the athletic talents that suggest with NFL coaching he could become far more diverse rather than being more of a straight line speed to power rusher. He already has very good hand usage, helping him in the run and pass games. 49ers coaches would have to coach him up but he could be a very impressive and athletic option at LEO in this defense.

Kevin King, CB (6’3, 200lbs)

Quick breakdown: Long corner with excellent ball skills, would fit nicely in the cover 3/cover 1 scheme used by the 49ers. Tackling an issue however and it’s a question of King’s willingness to tackle rather than technique which could put the team off.

Selection of plays:

Outstanding one handed interception
Man coverage, allows slight separation off line. Has a tendency to do this which causes him some problems. Undercuts route well
Great pass breakup, utilising length. Does allow receiver to win off the line however

Bottom line: King’s physical attributes are unsurprisingly one of his key selling points, but he has talent to match with his frame. He has excellent ball skills and is adept at matching receivers throughout their routes, though he can struggle to stay with shiftier options which is unsurprising given his length. Could get beaten off the line by physical receivers and be unable to recover but is bailed out by his physical attributes. Tackling is an issue and you wonder about the extent that he could get involved on special teams. A raw prospect who could develop into something special.

PREFERRED PICK: Bowser

I continue the policy of solidifying the 49ers defense in the short to intermediate zones. In Bowser, the 49ers land themselves a far more versatile piece than either Malcolm Smith or Ahmad Brooks.

Bowser could fill the roles of an OTTO and SAM linebacker incredibly well, as well as being a sub-package pass rusher if he proves himself more effective in this area than the 49ers’ other options.

The NFL is all about finding players who can do multiple things, allowing a defense to disguise its intentions before the snap. Bowser will give the 49ers this option and give them a linebacker who can deliver excellence in each area. Additionally, he is a better NFL player at this stage than either King or Willis in my opinion.

Prospective 3rd Rounders

Chidobe Awuzie, CB (6’0, 202lbs)

Quick breakdown: Could start straight away as the nickel corner and develop into a quality outside corner by year 3.

Selection of plays:

Man coverage from slot, excellent job of avoiding traffic and making play on the ball
An excellent pass break up, demonstrating his short area quickness and ability to make plays on the ball
Good coverage on John Ross, staying ahead of him and forcing him towards the sideline
Run defense

Bottom Line: Smooth corner, equally capable inside and outside, in man and in zone. Has good technique in press. Show’s a willingness to make plays in the run game but isn't a consistent tackler or particularly aggressive - will normally wrap up and bring a player down though. Needs to consistently get his feet closer to his target. Has experience as a blitzer (7 sacks in final 2 seasons) which will serve him well in this scheme. He also has special teams experience as a gunner.

Marcus Williams, S (6’1, 202lbs)

Quick breakdown: Playmaking deep centre-fielder who could back Jimmie Ward up as a rookie and potentially take over him from him if the team decides to look elsewhere in year 2 in the scheme.

Selection of plays:

Interception from deep centre field (View 1)
Interception from deep centre field (View 2)
Pass break up from deep centre field
Tackle working downhill from deep centre field

Bottom line: Williams is much more of a pure deep safety than Malik Hooker. He has good balls skills, solid awareness of players coming into his zone as well as a good ability to read a quarterbacks eyes. When a deep ball is thrown you can be sure Williams will be in the vicinity. He isn’t as rangey as Hooker, and is much more of a wrap up tackler than a hitter, but he could be a very solid back up for Ward as a rookie and develop into a good option at the position.

PREFERRED PICK: Awuzie

This was another pick that I found incredibly difficult to make. Williams would have represented picking a player for a greater need, with no one on the roster likely to be able to back up Jimmie Ward as a deep centre fielder.

However, Awuzie represents the best value, as he has the ability to play nickel corner immediately as well as increasing the competition at outside corner. The hope will be that he can develop into a good quality outside corner in the NFL and his versatility could see him develop into a great option both inside and outside - a key role in today’s NFL. He will help to solidify the 49ers’ coverage capabilities in the short to intermediate zones immediately, and have the potential to contribute far more later in his career.