The NFL Combine starts tomorrow (Feb 23), which means the NFL Draft is right around the corner. The 49ers don't have any glaring needs for their starting positions, unless they lose Dashon Goldson. Their biggest area of need is depth on the defensive line, and to groom a replacement for Justin Smith.
I'm a firm believer that games are won and lost in the trenches. The 49ers didn't do a good job of rotating players on their defensive line. Last season, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith were both in the top 5 of number of snaps by defensive players. McDonald and Smith were #3 and #4, respectively. The lack of depth compounded with Justin Smith's injury negatively affected the defense at the end of the season. The 49ers defense was only able to generate 4 sacks in the post season. The lack of depth also caused the secondary to give up around 100 yards more per game than their regular season average.
Fortunately the 49ers currently hold 11 draft picks in the upcoming Draft. They are speculated to get 3 more picks as compensation, due to losing players in free agency. Even more picks could be generated by trading Alex Smith. There are a few prospects that have the potential to add depth and eventually be groomed to be Justin Smith's successor. Datone Jones of UCLA, Margus Hunt of Souther Methodist, and Devin Taylor of South Carolina are players the 49ers could draft in the first three rounds.
Datone Jones is 6'4" and 280 pounds. Jones is expected to be drafted late in the first round. Jones has a dedication to the weight room and caught scouts attention leading up to the Senior Bowl. On the practice field he continued to impress coaches and scouts. During the Bowl game he was able to overpower solid tackles like Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner. If his stock continues to rise with a good Combine performance, he may not be around when the 49ers draft at #31. However, if the 49ers really like him, they can use some of their draft picks to move up and get him.
Margus Hunt is 6'8" and 277 pounds. Hunt is expected to be drafted in the second or third round. He is an incredible athlete with long arms and an 82 inch wingspan. Margus uses his size to tie up defenders and stuff the run game. Hunt is being described as being raw, because he hasn't been playing football for very long. The native Estonian is a gold medal winning track star. He won the medals for shot put and discus at Beijing in 2006, at the World Junior Championships. Despite being raw, Hunt produces in big games. He forced two fumbles and had two sacks in SMU's bowl game. He's a player with a high ceiling, who could end up being a bargain, if the 49ers can get him in the second or third round.
Devin Taylor is 6'7" and 275 pounds. Taylor is expected to be drafted in the third or fourth round. Like Hunt, Taylor is another great athlete with long arms. Despite being shorter, Taylor has an 87 inch wingspan. He had a good sophomore year with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. Since then his production has dropped throughout his senior year. The drop in production is a red flag, but good coaching could turn him around. I'm sure the 49ers defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula, is up to the task.
I'm sure the 49ers will address the issue in the draft, but they could also look to free agency to add depth. The most intriguing defensive end that will be up for grabs is Cincinnati's Michael Johnson. Johnson would not only give depth, but could be in constant rotation with McDonald and Smith. He was drafted in the 3rd round because scouts said he was raw. Johnson has turned himself into a rare talent. He's great at stopping the run and recorded 11.5 sacks last year. The Bengals are currently trying to re-sign Johnson, but I hope he hits the open market on March 12th. Anything can happen with the Bengals, they thought Justin Smith was a bust.
I hope to see talent added at the defensive end position during the draft and free agency. Just adding depth will help the 49ers current players stay fresh through the post season. Adding a player who can soak up double teams or get to the QB, will increase the linebackers production and help out the secondary.