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The 49ers have three defensive ends that play. Of the three, they are only sold on one of them: last year’s first round pick Andre Carter. The remaining players – John Engelberger and Chike Okeafor – are effort players but undersized and not gifted pass rushers. That’s a bad combination.
Engelberger, who has a motor that never stops, has been the second starter over Okeafor, who has taken a while to develop. Still, the 49ers have two main desires from their defensive ends that remain unfulfilled: size and pass rush.
It’s hard to fill both. The 49ers would like to get bigger on the line, but they also would like to have a pass rusher to add to the mix on third down. Carter should be a very solid player, but does not appear to be a sack artist like Jevon Kearse and does not have the size to be a top run stuffer.
If the 49ers decide to go with a defensive end on day one, do they draft Dwight Freeney, a gifted pass rusher who may not be big enough to be an everydown starter? Or do they add a big body like Charles Grant who could play every down and solidify the run defense?
Who We Can’t Take
Julius Peppers, North Carolina 6-6, 285, 4.60
63 tackles, 19 TFL, 9.5 sacks
The most impressive looking end in quite some time will be taken in the top two picks.
Kalimba Edwards, South Carolina 6-5, 265, 4.50
50 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks
Edwards is an impressive physical specimen making a tough transfer from linebacker. Will likely be taken by the time the 49ers pick. A risky proposition for such a high selection, since it’s still uncertain if he can be a defensive end in the NFL.
Who We Should Take
Charles Grant, Georgia 6-3, 278, 4.68
63 tackles, 12 TFL, 6 sacks
If the 49ers want to get bigger at end and still find some pass rush pop, Grant is the best option for them in the draft. After his on-campus workouts, it appears he’s first-round material. Grant is a big end who can run, which makes him stand out immediately. He also seemed to start figuring it all out as a player towards the end of his junior year. Appears to be a player who is coming into his own. A complete end. Plays the run very effectively and his some burst on the pass rush with a lot of upside. Much of the debate is speculation, however, since he didn’t come on until late and there is not a lot of tape of him playing at a high level. Had seven tackles for loss and five sacks against Auburn, but didn’t have another game like that in his career.
If I had to put my money on one end that the 49ers might take, I would put it on Grant. If the 49ers take an end, I think it will be him. The 49ers love him and have already scheduled private workouts for him.
Not that it’s too important, but I should also mention that Grant is a huge 49ers fan and has stated repeatedly that he wants to play for us.
Dwight Freeney, Syracuse 6-1, 268, 4.49
50 tackles, 26 TFL, 17 sacks, 24 QB hurries
At a position that too often values size over production, Freeney is the exact opposite. Exceptional athlete with a tremendous upfield burst and a great counter move and enough strength to bullrush players bigger than him. Very quick and active. Has a knack for anticipating the snap and is off the line like a rocket. Powerful. Can bench press 500 pounds, squat 700 pounds, and has a vertical leap of 37.5". Shows enough strength and aggressiveness to become an everydown end. Has pushed his weight to 268 from 245 and is just as quick. At the very least, will step into a pass rush specialist role immediately and be pretty good at it. However, he’s undersized in both height and weight. Could eventually add some bulk and still be effective, but will not get any taller and there are doubts about his ability to be an everydown end. There are also some durability concerns with Freeney. He hasn't been fully healthy for a whole year until last season, and then he sprained his ankle on the second day of Senior Bowl practices and missed the rest of the week and the game. Was shut down by the two best tackles he faced: Bryant McKinnie if Miami and Kendall Simmons of Auburn.
Freeney often gets compared to Corey Moore, the undersized end from Virginia Tech two years ago who tallied 17 sacks for the Hokies but has been switched to linebacker by the Buffalo Bills. But there are some big differences. Freeney, while undersized, is still much larger than Moore was (who was 5-11, 220 pounds) and is much, much stronger. On the play he injured himself on during Senior Bowl week, he bullrushed the offensive lineman blocking him - lifting him into the air - and drove him into the quarterback. His height and weight will keep some scouts at bay, however.
Bryan Thomas, UAB6-4 1/2, 266, 4.50
46 tackles, 21 TFL, 14 sacks
Certainly a little raw in his overall game, but has some exciting pass rush skills and could be rotated in on passing downs as a rookie. A high effort player with a quick first step and a nice arsenal of moves. Although he has some size, he does not appear to be an everydown end at this stage in his career and would be a better fit for a team looking to rotate a pass rusher in off the bench. He wasn’t given much in the way of assignments while at UAB, and to ask him to rush the passer and think could be a problem.
Thomas is very tempting. His lack of stature against the run will cause him to be drop into the second round (maybe third), but he would be a great pick for the 49ers if they feel his pass rush skills are legit. He could rotate in as a rookie and has the size potential to be more of an every-down end if he works at it.
Who We Shouldn’t Take
Alex Brown, Florida 6-3 1/2, 251, 4.75
38 tackles, 12 TFL, 9 sacks
I want to like Alex Brown. I really do. Physically, he looks like what you want. He’ll make a few plays that are special. He had his most complete season by far as a Senior, playing the run with some energy and playing with heart. Has the size, the quickness off the ball, the speed, and the experience of playing four years for the Gators. But Brown is frustrating. He never sustained the flash he displayed as a sophomore. He does not appear to be very football smart, and his recognition skills are suspect. Brown also seems to lack effort and heart. He will totally disappear for whole games and often gives up on his rush when his first move is countered. Is not a fighter, will not hustle much, and gives up on too many plays.
Brown has all the physical tools to excel, but he just seems content to settle with his athleticism and go into cruise control. It goes without saying that he’s not a 49er kind of player from a mental standpoint.
Dennis Johnson, Kentucky 6-4 1/2, 258, 4.81
61 tackles, 19 TFL, 12 sacks, 5 FF
A very gifted pass rusher, physically. Very wide, massive frame and should be able to add a lot of weight and not lose a step. Has some quickness off the snap and plays much faster than he times. Really knows how to finish the play and has a great closing burst on the passer. Can beat offensive lineman with pure speed, but has developed some nice swim moves and double moves. Was the only player on the Kentucky defense the opposition had to worry about and saw his share of double teams. Is agile and could be effective vs. the run in college. Generally plays hard and was a valuable special teams player. However, Johnson needs to add some bulk. He does not possess very stout, strong legs and his effectiveness vs. the run at the pro level must be a major concern. Has a tendency to play too upright and can be driven out of plays. His lack of lower body strength really hurts him at the point of attack. May not be an everydown end right now, and he's not quite as good a pass rusher as Dwight Freeney and maybe Bryan Thomas. Probably could have used another year of school.
Johnson could develop into a great end, but his lower body strength and overall weight may keep him in the weight room more than the field as a rookie. Relies on quickness more than overall speed, but appears to be too soft right now.
Ryan Denney, BYU 6-7, 276, 4.83
68 tackles, 19 TFL, 7 sacks
I think Denney will be a very good power end and a good NFL player, but I can’t see the 49ers taking him. Yes, the 49ers would like to get bigger at end, but they are not going to use a first day pick on an end who brings very little pass rush to the table. He’s very big, very tough, agile for his size, and very smart. But he will probably never be a great pass rusher in the NFL. Denney is a 3-4 kind of end.