One of the strongest defensive lineman draft and free-agent classes of the decade could be just what John Lynch and the 49ers need.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It’s no secret that one of the San Francisco 49ers‘ top priorities this offseason is finding a difference-making edge rusher.
“You have to have a guy who can close out games, close out halves,” general manager John Lynch said at last week’s NFL scouting combine. “When you have them, they can be a difference-maker. I think we’re also looking for powerful players. … They’re going to be playing with a quick trigger and getting after it. But, those are guys that can get to the quarterback and finish him.”
Really, it’s not a matter of if the Niners will make substantial additions to their outside pass rush or even a question of when. The more pertinent question might be how many pass-rushers San Francisco adds to the mix?
The 49ers’ search for help on the outside has taken a back seat in the past two years under Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan. While the need was obvious, the Niners simply didn’t have many options to fill the void successfully.
Entering the past two offseasons, the Niners did plenty of research on potential free agents such as Melvin Ingram, DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah and Chandler Jones. None made it to the open market, either because of a franchise tag or a long-term contract.
The draft hasn’t offered much, either, as the Niners watched the Cleveland Browns take Myles Garrett at No. 1 overall in 2017 and the Denver Broncos take Bradley Chubb at No. 5 in 2018. Neither draft provided much in the way of clear difference-makers at the position after those top two options.
This year, however, the tables have finally appeared to turn in the Niners’ direction. The strength of this year’s draft is undoubtedly at edge rusher where eight to 10 players could land in the first round. San Francisco owns the second pick in the draft, one it’s expected to use on one of the top players at the position, particularly if Ohio State’s Nick Bosa is available.
The abundance of pass-rushing talent isn’t limited to the draft, either. Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Frank Clark and Lawrence each received the franchise tag, but other intriguing — if not game-changing — options are poised to hit the free-agent market or become available through trade.
That group includes defensive ends such as Trey Flowers, Dante Fowler, Markus Golden, Ansah and linebackers such as Anthony Barr, Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Shaquil Barrett. Kansas City’s Justin Houston and the New York Giants‘ Olivier Vernon could also be in play via trade.
“It’s a great year to be looking for D-linemen in general,” Lynch said. “I’ve been doing this for a couple of years, but they’re talking eight years, this is as strong of a class as the last eight years at the defensive line. I concur. It’s not just exclusively at one position. There’s inside guys, there’s outside guys and, you’re right, there’s some on the free agent [market].”
For the Niners, figuring out that puzzle comes with a fair amount of guesswork but also from the advantageous spot of holding such a lofty draft pick along with what figures to be $65-70 million in salary cap space. That combination puts the Niners in a position where it’s not far-fetched to think they could double dip to supercharge the pass rush and take their defense to the next level.
As part of that equation, the Niners are working to get a better understanding of what they’ll be doing schematically this season. The addition of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has brought some expected changes in how the Niners will attack up front, which can alter the landscape of what they’re seeking at the position.
Kocurek is expected to implement more wide-9 technique, a tweak to the alignment of the defensive line that asks the ends to line up outside the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder and, in some cases, outside the tight end. The technique can work for speed rushers — think former Indianapolis Colts pass-rusher Dwight Freeney — or bigger, more physical types. Ideally, the Niners would like the full package but they also seem to like the idea of a rusher with power — someone capable of taking advantage of the angles the wide-9 creates with the ability to convert speed to power.
Shanahan has often said he wishes the draft came before free agency because it would allow teams to truly focus on drafting the best player available and then fill remaining holes in free agency.
Since that’s not possible, the Niners can at least enter free agency with a good idea of the type of player they could land with the second pick and bid on free agents accordingly.
For example, if they feel good that Bosa, who projects as a defensive end in the Niners’ base 4-3 defense, will be available in the draft, perhaps they’d be inclined to spend free-agent dollars on a possible SAM linebacker, such as Barrett or Barr. If Kentucky’s Josh Allen seems more likely in the draft, perhaps they’d pursue a rush end like Ansah, who has ties to vice president of player personnel Martin Mayhew and Kocurek from Detroit, to complement him. Or maybe the Niners, with Arik Armstead headed into the final year of his contract, would want to double down on ends.
“There’s lots of ways it can go,” Shanahan said. “This is a very pivotal time for us with the six picks we have, and the six picks that we have in the draft will definitely tie into what we do in free agency and vice versa.”
Regardless of the approach, this much is clear: For the first time in the Shanahan and Lynch regime, the Niners have legitimate options to bolster their outside pass rush and will almost certainly dedicate valuable resources to make it happen.