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49ers Notebook: Frank Gore gets involved in draft meetings; Players praise Steve Wilks; What makes the 49ers good at revitalizing D-linemen?

Apr 24, 2023 at 5:02 PM--

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There was no shortage of news and notes to come out of Santa Clara on Monday, as 49ers general manager John Lynch as well as center Jake Brendel, defensive lineman Arik Armstead, linebacker Fred Warner, and running back Christian McCaffrey took some time to speak with reporters about the upcoming NFL Draft as well as several issues of interest surrounding the team.

Many of the key issues Lynch discussed have already been dissected on 49ers Webzone (see also: John Lynch expects Trey Lance to be with 49ers in 2023 | Lynch expects 49ers to keep WR Brandon Aiyuk | Lynch says Brock Purdy making "great progress" | Reacting to John Lynch's presser | 49ers players excited about Javon Hargrave addition | 49ers have zero intention of listening to offers for Nick Bosa | John Lynch on Lamar Jackson interest), but there's more where that came from in this edition of 49ers Notebook. We'll get into an interesting new direction for 49ers legend Frank Gore, as well as what the 49ers think of new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and much more. Read on below.

Frank Gore goes behind the scenes

Lynch revealed an interesting and unexpected tidbit about Frank Gore on Monday, telling reporters the retired running back has been taking part in the team's draft meetings and learning more about the overall process.

"Frank Gore sat in a lot of meetings, didn't say much, but sat back and took a lot of mental notes," Lynch said. "And that's been cool to share the process with him."

Gore has tried his hand at boxing since leaving the playing field in 2022 but now seems to be interested in doing other things in an NFL capacity. It's tough to say exactly where it will lead, but the 49ers were more than willing to accommodate him when he showed interest.

"A couple of years ago we had (Joe) Staley in here," Lynch said. "Frank showed an interest in coming in here and like I said, somebody had made that opportunity available to me years ago and I was really grateful for it.

"And so if someone's willing to put the time in and has given as much as he has to the organization, then absolutely we're going to open our arms. And Frank, I think he learned a lot through the process."

Sorting out some offensive line pieces

The starting lineup on the offensive line is at least partially in place for the 49ers, with Trent Williams at left tackle, Aaron Banks at left guard, and Jake Brendel at center. But there will be competition for the remaining two spots as well as the rest of the depth chart.

Lynch and Brendel talked about a few of those pieces Monday, starting with second-year guard Spencer Burford and veteran free agent addition Jon Feliciano. Burford split time as a rookie at right guard with Daniel Brunskill, but it remains to be seen how things shake out this season after Brunskill left for the Tennessee Titans in free agency.

Feliciano has plenty of starting experience, so he could have a chance to win the job at right guard this season. If not, Feliciano at least figures to be a versatile part of the line like Brunskill was in his time with the 49ers.

"I think that's open to him," Lynch said of Feliciano. "We rotated Spencer and Brunskill last year. Jon's a guy who started a lot of games here in the last few years. I think he gives us tremendous versatility at guard and center. Around the league, it's kind of known he's one of those glue guys, one of those guys you want in your room. And so he became a priority for us in free agency.

"I felt very fortunate that we were able to come out of free agency with Jon, a part of our team, especially once we lost Danny. Those guys are incredibly valuable now."

Beating out the 2022 fourth-round pick Burford could be a challenge. The 49ers liked what they saw from him last season, and he'll have a chance to take a leap forward now that he has a year of experience under his belt.

"I thought Spencer acquitted himself really well," Lynch said. "He's a really talented young man, and I think it's only going to get better. And it's always great to have competition and know you have someone there that if something were to happen at either spot, and I mean all three, really you've got a guy who's tested, who's battle tested, who has done it. And so John was really a nice addition for us and really cool to have added him to our group."

Brendel thinks Burford has a bright future as well.

"I mean, he has all the measurables, right? Like, if you look at the guy he's just built to play offensive line, and then also I feel like he has a good head on his shoulders and he can really get things done, make the proper decisions he has to make, and execute the job that he has at hand," Brendel said. "So I feel like it's onwards and upwards for that guy."

Another player who could be a factor at guard in some capacity is 2022 sixth-round pick Nick Zakelj. He saw time in a reserve role as a rookie and has been making strides throughout the past few months.

"Probably more as an interior, but he is a guy when we speak of him we talk about five position flex," Lynch said. "I mean, I think Nick has that in him. Nick, just talking to our strength coaches, he's a guy really having a great offseason. He's just been here the entire time, making a lot of progress in terms of his strength, his explosion. He's the right type of mindset, and he's a really good talent. I'm excited about his future confidence level."

It would also come as no surprise if the 49ers added more players to the mix in the NFL Draft.

Stay put or move around?

The 49ers face a similar draft conundrum that they did in 2022 -- a loaded roster that may not have room for all the players they select. Lynch said Monday that the team wanted to make draft trades in 2022 even though they were unable to. They'll certainly weigh their options when the time comes this year, but if the 49ers have to stay at their current draft positions, Lynch likes their chances of adding players capable of making an impact.

"How do you balance that with also wanting just a lot of picks just so you can hit some more? Yeah, that's something you have to take," Lynch said. "We've had drafts where we're incredibly active, and last year we didn't make one move that wasn't for lack of trying. We tried to move around. Nothing came to fruition. I think a lot of that's just sitting there, and it's kind of painful to do when you're sitting there, just as it was last year. We picked at 61.

"It's a lot of sitting and waiting and seeing names go off that you really like. And then I think what you start doing is saying, 'Hey, if all the players we like are starting to go, okay, now, is this an opportunity for us to move up and go get one of the last few that we really have a high grade on?' Those things can factor in. But I mentioned the quality of depth on this draft. I really believe at 99, at 101, 102 and 155, there's going to be players we really like and want to add to our team, and that has me encouraged."

The 49ers have 11 draft picks in all, with their first three coming in Round 3. Those selections will be made toward the end of Day 2 on the draft on Friday.

Meet the new boss

The 49ers have big shoes to fill at defensive coordinator this season due to former coordinator DeMeco Ryans' decision to take over the head coaching position for the Houston Texans. But new coordinator Steve Wilks will be up to the task and is seemingly off to a strong start.

Wilks comes to the 49ers from the Carolina Panthers, where he led the team on a late hot streak last season as an interim head coach following the dismissal of Matt Rhule. Wilks has made a positive impression on Armstead, who heard good things about his new defensive coordinator from a friend of his with the Panthers.

"Yeah, it's been great so far. I think this is my fifth D coordinator since I've been here," Armstead said Monday. "All different in some ways and I've heard when we hired him, I heard great things about him. One of my best friends, (linebacker) Shaq Thompson, was with him in Carolina and speaks very highly of him and told me that I was going to love him and then ever since I got a chance to meet him been around him. That's been very true. He's a great leader and he's looking to come in and not change everything, what we're doing but just add another level and take it up a notch.

"So I'm excited and excited to get to know him more and excited to play for him."

Linebacker Fred Warner had similar praise for Wilks, saying the team isn't missing a beat so far on defense.

"He fits right in," Warner said. "It's been a seamless transition. He's come in and he's taken a hold of everything and we all respect the heck out of him already as our coach. The type of guy that he is, you could tell that he genuinely cares about his players. It's important for him to build those relationships with us. And we're starting at ground zero again. Everything we've done in the past is behind us. It's a new year, a new opportunity, and I think that's what's exciting.

"And I know Steve's going to do an amazing job getting us ready."

McCaffrey also had praise for Wilks based off his experiences with him in Carolina.

"Coach Wilks is awesome," McCaffrey said. "I think I could talk about Coach Wilks a lot and just the type of man he is, but it says a lot to see how all the Panthers players reacted to him and them vouching for him to get the head job. That's a testament to who he is. And that explains a lot about not just the coach he is, but the guy he is. So happy he's on our side."

What changes, if any, will Wilks bring to the defense?

"I'm sure time will tell," Warner said. "The fact that he has that background of coaching defensive backs and really being involved in that part of it, I know he wants to be hands on with those guys and tidy things up in the back end just from kind of seeing things this first couple of weeks of (offseason workouts). I know he wants us to be more aggressive.

"That's kind of been the thing. As I've been here more and grown in the system and seeing it progress, you see that we want to be more and more aggressive in the front seven. So, like I said, time will tell."

Secret sauce

The 49ers have become known for bringing in defensive linemen on short-term contracts and leading them to success that in some cases has re-energized their careers. They'll be trying to do it again this year with former Raider first-round pick Clelin Ferrell.

Armstead was a vocal supporter of the 49ers adding Ferrell, whom he's been familiar with since Ferrell was drafted in 2019.

"I've known Cle for some years now. I met him his rookie year," Armstead said. "His rookie year, he came and trained with me, actually, out here in San Jose. I've known him for some years and got a chance to work with him, and Cle is a great player. He was a guy that I talked to the coaches and staff about, a guy that I think would have been great to bring here just because I know him, I know how hard he works, and I know the type of player he can be if putting in a good situation. And I think here is a great situation for him. If you look at some of the past guys, it's kind of been in his position that we've brought in."

Armstead thinks Ferrell can follow in the footsteps of Arden Key, Samson Ebukam, and Charles Omenihu, who turned their short stints with the 49ers into big contracts.

"They've had some success here, like Arden, Samson, Charles, a lot of guys have had success in that role, so I'm excited to see it," Armstead said. "I know Coach is going to put a plan in place for him and I think it's going to work for his skill set and I think he's going to have a tremendous year.

So what exactly is it that helps lead these players to success when they come to the 49ers? Armstead dove into that Monday, explaining how defensive line coach Kris Kocurek puts players in a position to succeed.

"Well, for one, it's the belief, I think, not just the X's and O's, but Kris identifying a player that he believes in and instilling that confidence in them and having a plan for them," Armstead said. "Sometimes guys can get in the league and they don't have a plan for you and you don't go out there and have success right away and people's opinion of you wavers. And that can be tough on a player.

"But playing for a guy that believes in you and has a plan for you and wants you to be successful and wants to help you in your career, that gives you a sense of confidence and a sense of peace."

The X's and O's play a big role in the success as well. It all adds up to a situation that other players around the NFL want to play in.

"The way we play, the style of play I think is super helpful and beneficial too, attacking and letting us play free and then just our DNA of our defense," Armstead said. "You want to be attached to our defense because we have a great reputation around the league. When you turn on the tape, other teams want to be a part of that. And so that's why you see guys who play here and playing our defense going on and get big contracts because of the way we play. You know the type of player you're going to get when you sign one of us.

"And that's a big testament to Chris and what he's established here."

Hoping this is finally the year

Will 2023 be the year defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw stays healthy and has a breakout season? He's looking good so far, according to Lynch.

Kinlaw has been plagued with injuries off and on since the 49ers used a first-round pick on him in the 2020 NFL Draft. He hasn't had to deal with anything like that to this point in offseason workouts.

"JK is doing great," Lynch said. "He's really in a good spot. He looks tremendous. He's preparing. He's excited about his preparation. I think it's a good feeling when you've battled injuries year after year and you're in a healthy spot and you can see it in the way he's walking around here. He's just very encouraged and in a really good place, and I think he's earned that right."

Lynch said the team will announce after the draft whether or not they decide to pick up the fifth-year option in Kinlaw's rookie contract, a decision that is due by May 2. Either way, Lynch says he's looking forward to seeing what Kinlaw has in store for the upcoming season.

"He's worked really hard to be here, and I think we're all really encouraged by it and excited to see what can come," Lynch said.

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