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Why replacing Charles Omenihu must be a draft priority for the 49ers

San Francisco’s D-Line needs inside-out versatility.

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

For all the losses the 49ers suffered in free agency, there were few departures that involved players who figure to be difficult to replace, and the Niners have predominantly done an impressive job of restocking the cupboard.

The area of the team that was affected most by free agency was the defensive line. Javon Hargrave was a big-ticket addition to the interior, but the exits of Charles Omenihu, Samson Ebukam and Jordan Willis left the Niners with work to do in replenishing their depth on the edge.

Of that trio, it is Omenihu, whose skill set was always likely to be the most difficult for the 49ers to find on the open market. Though the 49ers have taken low-risk bets on Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant to give them veteran options on the edge, neither can claim to fill the void left by Omenihu.

Omenihu played a crucial role on the 49er defensive front over the last two seasons, giving San Francisco productive snaps on the edge and the interior and showing his ability to create penetration from both spots.

While Ferrell has seen action as a 3-technique during his career, the 2019 first-round pick has not come close to performing at the standard of Omenihu and, as the page turns toward the draft, identifying a prospect with a high ceiling who can offer inside-out versatility is likely to be high on the 49ers’ wish list.

There is, of course, no guarantee a rookie with the skill set to play in both positions would immediately hit the ground running, but having a player with the capability to move around the defensive front is important for the 49ers because of the flexibility it would potentially buy them.

San Francisco is facing the prospect of starting Drake Jackson at defensive end across from Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa.

The Niners have high hopes for last year’s second-round pick, but there is reason for concern he may not be ready for a starting role, having endured a disappointing end to his rookie year. Jackson was kept a healthy scratch for all three of the 49ers’ playoff games.

Neither of the 49ers’ additions on the edge inspire much confidence they can serve as an insurance should Jackson struggle to make the starting role his own.

In that circumstance, moving Arik Armstead back to big end looks to be the 49ers’ most likely insurance policy given the current lack of alternatives. San Francisco would surely rather avoid a switch that takes Armstead out of his favored and best position on the interior, making an infusion of further depth a necessity.

Ensuring one of those depth additions has the ability to play inside and out can both limit the snaps where Armstead is required on the edge and give the 49ers extra interior help in instances that see him move to the outside.

Back in 2021, the 49ers had two rotational defensive linemen who excelled inside and out in Omenihu and Arden Key. They are both now off the roster and, though Hargrave’s arrival may have made interior help a less pressing need, it would behoove San Francisco to make sure the Niners still have a player who can offer that versatility in 2023.