Michael Lombardi, an NFL writer for The Athletic, recently said on his podcast “The GM Shuffle,” that he could see eight offensive tackles being drafted before pick #35 at the top of the second round. So, doing the math here, that would be one offensive tackle taken every four or five picks. That would be fairly unheard of.
Don’t get me wrong; there are a good number of teams who are going to be in the market for a tackle, but are there eight tackles worth taking during those first 34 picks? I’m not so sure about that.
With the 49ers in possession of the #13 and #31 picks, they are in a prime position to get, at least, one really good player in the first round. But obviously, the hope is to go 2-for-2. If the Niners decide to bypass on a top corner of one of the remaining top-3 wide receivers, one of the top-4 tackles will likely be there at #13. But what if that’s too early for them?
If Lombardi believes four more will go before pick #35, who are the four following the guys in the elite tier? The consensus few tackles in the second tier of the position include Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland, USC’s Austin Jackson, and Houston’s Josh Jones. Those three make the final number seven, but who is the eighth and final player Lombardi has in mind? It could be Georgia’s right tackle Isaiah Wilson, or maybe TCU’s Lucas Niang.
If teams are truly valuing the tackle group this much, then maybe the Niners should take swing at a guy with either of their two first-round picks.
In my opinion, I think there are several who certainly fit better within Kyle Shanahan’s offense compared to others. Here are my top guys whose talents could be maximized in San Francisco’s zone-heavy scheme.
At Pick #13
1.) Tristan Wirfs, Iowa
At a true 6’5 and 320 pounds, combined with his insane athleticism, Wirfs is my top offensive lineman in the entire draft regardless of fit. However, plugging him into a zone-heavy scheme where you can utilize his balance and body-control in space and at the second level will be the easiest way to get the most out of the former Hawkeye. Iowa is a very pro-style, zone-heavy scheme. They put on a clinic every Saturday on how to take zone steps and how to work as one unit in the ground game.
Tristan Wirfs elite athleticism showed up plenty on tape. This is a great example. pic.twitter.com/g17iDNVHbS— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) February 29, 2020
(Now watch this video and imagine Wirfs out in front of Deebo Samuel. Mmmmm, that’s nice.)
You’re all aware of the other former Iowa player that the Niners drafted, yeah? Then you should all know he got the same type of coaching and work-ethic as the first guy. The University of Iowa has a phenomenal track record of producing NFL offensive lineman with the likes of Marshal Yanda, Bryan Bulaga, Riley Reiff, Brandon Scherff, and Robert Gallery on their short-list. While they may not churn them out in the same quantity as Alabama, their quality of player is still right near the top.
If Wirfs gets anywhere near the pick 13, the Niners would be wise to go get him. Even if Joe Staley doesn’t retire before the 2020 season, Wirfs could easily slide in and wreak havoc as a guard until the long-time left tackle decides to call it a career.
2.) Jedrick Wills, Alabama
Wills and Wirfs often trade-off as the top offensive tackle in this class. Louisville’s Mekhi Becton is also occasionally seen at the top of someone’s ranking, but i’ll get to him soon.
Fun Fact: Wills is the only tackle among the consensus top-4 to not play snaps at both left and right tackle. He literally played every single snap on the right side in Tuscaloosa. Does this limit his chances of potentially switching sides in the pros? Certainly not, but I wouldn’t expect it as suddenly as with the others.
In his own right, Wills was one of the best athletes among the offensive linemen during the NFL’s Scouting Combine in late February. At 6’4 and 312 pounds, he ran a 5.05 forty with an impressive 34.5” vertical. The explosive power is evident in his film, and he also possesses the athletic capability to thrive in any blocking scheme. He is devastating on down blocks, and it showed at Bama with a large number of power concepts they ran this past season. They did most of their zone runs from the shotgun, but that really doesn’t make much of a difference in the end. Wills would be just as effective in either scheme, but Wirfs gets the final nod at the top due to a larger amount of experience doing exactly what Shanahan expects from his offensive linemen.
3.) Mekhi Becton, Louisville
The massive 6’7, 364-pound Becton is a road-grader in the truest sense of the term. Louisville utilized plenty of zone principles, and Becton was highly successful in climbing to the second level and punishing linebackers. While he doesn’t look like he’s super nimble out in space, his sheer size and girth don’t make him easy to avoid. He also knows his angles and takes advantage.
Becton could eventually step in at left tackle and give the Niners two tall and long bookend protectors against edge rushers. At the combine, Becton ran a staggering 5.11 forty at just around 15% body fat. He’s way more athletic than you would ever expect for a man his size, and it’s certainly good enough to thrive in SF’s zone-heavy scheme.
While Becton may struggle to reach inside shades on the backside of runs, he opens the door wide open when blocking play-side. Instead of fitting up and running his feet on the defender, Becton loves to unhinge and wallop guys into next Tuesday, usually causing the play to end in a pancake block for him.
Almost everyone who discusses Mekhi Becton laughs about how comical his film is. Dudes flying back like they are in a cartoon or tossed around like they are rag dolls. He’s this year’s Quenton Nelson in that respect. https://t.co/6HhzZtz2KA— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 15, 2020
While Becton is squarely one of the top tackles in this class, Wills and Wirfs simply offer more in terms of versatility and the projection to even play a little guard in the meantime should a tackle spot not open up as a rookie with the Niners.
At pick #31
4.) Ezra Cleveland, Boise State
Cleveland is the top guy for the Niners should they decide to take one at the end of the first. He was right up there with Wirfs as an elite performer at this year’s combine and had the same athletic upside that got guys like Kolton Miller, and Brian O’Neill drafted so high.
At a looming 6’6 and 311 pounds, Cleveland posted a 4.93 forty and 30 reps on the bench press. His 30 inches in the vertical were also notable, while his 4.46 in the short shuttle was one of the top marks among his position group.
Ezra Cleveland, OT, Boise State:— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) March 3, 2020
• Testing athleticism matches up
• Patient + Poised pass sets (++)
• Calculated second level climbs
• Efficient punch w/either hand
• Above average anchor strength (+)
• Excellent zone-scheme fit
• Trial and error early NFL starter pic.twitter.com/Ol8OZbXGeJ
The former Bronco can immediately contribute to a team as their swing tackle but will need to increase his functional strength to find consistent success at the next level. His footwork in outside zone is what you want, and his length helps him cross the faces of outside shades. He’s pretty lean for 311 pounds, and it’s evident he can add additional mass to help counteract his shortcomings against pure power rushers.
Cleveland is the ideal high-upside pick at a position of great importance and can sit behind Staley, another former athletically-gifted tackle prospect, to learn the ins-and-outs of making it at left tackle in the NFL.
5.) Austin Jackson, USC
Jackson rounds-out the top guys for the Niners, but I gotta be honest: I don’t think he’s a first-round player and can only see him going to SF at #31 if they get uncharacteristically skittish and frantically pull the trigger. This doesn’t mean I think Jackson is a bad player, but the top of the second is probably his sweet spot.
Another good athlete, Jackson ran a 5.07 in Indianapolis with a 31-inch vertical, a 9’7 in the broad, and 27 reps on the bench press. He’s a smooth operator in his kick-slide while maintaining proper hand position. He doesn’t often turn his shoulder away from the line of scrimmage and fights to stay square as long as possible. The biggest knock for him is will he be able to handle straight power in the pros.
During USC’s loss to Wirfs and his Hawkeyes in the bowl game, Jackson struggled early and often with potential first-round edge rusher AJ Epenesa. Epenesa tested very poorly himself at the combine, so it can be deduced that Jackson didn’t lose the battle of superior physical specimens. He just needs to tidy up some of his footwork, and he should be a solid starter for a number of years.
USC left tackle Austin Jackson missed the offseason program last year to give bone marrow to save his sisters life. Came back with very little lead up to the season, had ups & downs.— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 13, 2020
Very springy pass sets. Explosive out of stance, smooth lateral slides. He's got quick feet. pic.twitter.com/Pqo6whk9oE
Out of all these guys, Jackson actually has the least amount of experience in a zone offense, especially coming off a season where USC and quarterback Kedon Slovis threw the ball four million times. I have Jackson here due to his athleticism being easily translatable and what positives I saw from his limited sample size.