While the 49ers certainly improved against the run in 2017, their pass defense was a problem. The team addressed the most glaring weak spot in the secondary by signing Richard Sherman in free agency. While Sherman has not yet been cleared to practice, he has already begun to mentor the young defensive backs on the roster, and he promises to be healthy in time to man the boundary cornerback spot opposite of Akhello Witherspoon.

In order to continue improving against the pass, the 49ers must upgrade their pass rush and their intermediate zone coverage. The 49ers already have an impressive array of interior rushers, and the most dramatic improvement to the pass rush would come from securing the services of an edge rusher who can win quickly and provide immediate outside pressure. With presumptive starters at both safety spots, in addition to both cornerback positions, the most significant move the team could make to directly improve their pass coverage would be to select an athletic, instinctive inside linebacker who would patrol the intermediate zones between the line of scrimmage and the three deep zones occupied by the corners and free safety.

Previously, we looked at offensive players and defensive backs that the team could select with the ninth-overall pick on Thursday night. Today, we will look at players in the defensive front seven that have been linked to the 49ers selection in the first round.

HAROLD LANDRY


I chose Harold Landry (Boston College) in the mock I shared on the Webzone podcast. Obviously, I think he is a great fit for the 49ers defense. He specializes in the exact type of edge rush that the defense needs. He gets off the ball explosively, with low pads, and he bends the edge naturally and effortlessly, dipping under helpless tackles and flattening to the quarterback without drifting upfield. He plays with enough awareness and a fast processing speed, which allows him to target the football as he finishes his rush, forcing ten fumbles in his career (seven in 2016 alone). The immediate edge pressure that he provides could result in ten sacks per year, but it could also turn many of DeForest Buckner's pressures into sacks, as opposing quarterbacks would not be able to flee the edges of the pocket to evade Buckner's interior rush.


It was considered a surprise to draft experts when Landry elected not to enter the 2017 draft. He was coming off a dominant season in which he collected 16.5 sacks, and he was being discussed as a top pick. Landry elected to return to Boston College to continue his development, and he struggled to match his 2016 production. While his rush technique looked more nuanced in 2017, as he introduced a speed-to-power conversion and inside counter to his pass rushing lexicon, he faced more double teams, rolled protection, and sprint outs away from him at the beginning of the season. Opponents had realized that BC's weakened defense could be dominated if the offense schemed to limit Landry's impact.

Midway through the season, Landry suffered an ankle sprain that compromised some of his signature bend and agility, and an aggravation of the injury two weeks later benched Landry for the rest of the season. The injury and diminished production appear to have damaged Landry's draft stock, which is a benefit to whichever team drafts him. I believe he is still the dominant edge rusher from 2016, as long as he is healthy and he has linemates who are worthy of an opponent's attention. Landry's superb performance at the combine suggests that his ankle is finally healthy again. Rushing Landry on the edge of a line that includes Buckner and Solomon Thomas would force teams to choose which threat to double team, and the players facing single protection would likely win those matchups.

If the 49ers pass on Landry, there are some intriguing day two prospects the team could look at to address the edge rush, including Ogbonnnia Okoronkwo, Dorance Armstrong Jr., and Kemoko Turay.

MARCUS DAVENPORT


The recent success of developmental height/weight/speed prospects has pushed Marcus Davenport (University of Texas-San Antonio) up the draft board. He certainly possesses impressive athleticism for a man of his large dimensions, as he ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at six feet, six inches and 264 pounds. Davenport has been compared to other H/W/S prospects, such as Ezekial Ansah and Aldon Smith. While Davenport tested similarly to Smith, he is considerably less agile and flexible than Ansah. He has significantly shorter arms than both men (by at least 1.5 inches), which, combined with his height and stiffness, actually contributes to damage the leverage he can apply to offensive tackles.

Davenport found sustained success collapsing the edge with a powerful bull rush in college. While his opponents were unimpressive, and none of the tackles he faced appear to be headed to the NFL, power tends to translate well to the pros. Unfortunately, raw power was enough to dominate his unheralded opponents, but that power must be accompanied by much better leverage in order to show up against more talented and technically sound NFL tackles. Davenport's pad level was atrocious in 2017. He may be capable of playing lower, but he did not demonstrate that ability on the field, likely because he could win with poor pad level in college. Drafting Davenport at nine would require the 49ers to project significant improvement resulting from professional coaching.


As Davenport is more limited athletically than Ansah, his most relevant NFL comparison would seem to be Aldon Smith. While both men had good athleticism combined with stiff hips and torsos, Smith was clearly the better pass rusher coming out of college. Smith employed a diverse set of violent hand techniques and precise hand placement to take full advantage of the power he mustered through his 35.5-inch arms. As I stated before, Davenport relies almost exclusively upon his bull rush, and he rarely counters effectively when his momentum is halted.

Optimistic teams will see Davenport as a worthwhile project who could be dominant if he develops greater bend and more sophisticated hand technique. He also needs to learn how to rush comfortably out of a three-point stance, as he played standing up at UTSA. He shouldn't be expected to dominate as an edge rusher in 2018, but he could contribute immediately by setting the edge on base downs. His style of rushing may make him a very good conventional defensive end in a conventional 4-3 defense, or a big end in the 49ers' 4-3 under scheme, though he could play either end position on base downs.

ROQUAN SMITH


Roquan Smith (Georgia) is exciting to watch. He pursues to the sideline with speed, purpose, and efficiency that reminds me of prime Patrick Willis, though he doesn't quite hit like Willis. He is fluid, instinctive, and sticky in coverage. His tackles combine physicality and the heads-out tackling that will keep him penalty-free in the increasingly cautious NFL. He times and disguises blitzes well enough to burst untouched through the line of scrimmage, and he boasts enough agility to continue closing on quarterbacks and running backs who attempt to sidestep his blitz.

There are no glaring weaknesses in Smith's game. The most common knock against his game, that he struggles to stack and shed offensive linemen when they engage him, is largely irrelevant. He doesn't have to play through offensive linemen, because he reads and reacts quickly enough to beat the linemen across their faces. If he can reach the point of attack before the blockers can, he doesn't need to defeat their blocks directly. He wins with speed, and he wins consistently. A linebacker with Smith's athleticism would limit pass completions in the intermediate zones (roughly 8-16 yards beyond the line of scrimmage) between the numbers, which is a region that is frequently targeted against the 49ers' three-deep coverage.


The only relevant concern against drafting Smith with the ninth pick would be the position he plays. Linebackers rarely go in the top ten. Patrick Willis, the archetype of modern linebacker play, was the eleventh pick in the 2007 draft. I don't see Willis when I see Smith, though I do see a player who undoubtedly belongs among the 10 best football players in the draft. Unfortunately for Smith, talent is not the only determinant of draft positioning. Some of the top linebackers in the NFL (to include Bobby Wagner, Telvin Smith, Eric Kendricks, and Deion Jones) were drafted in the second round or later. This draft boasts impressive depth at linebacker. The 49er Faithful should be excited if the team drafts Smith at nine, but they should also understand if the team elects to select a talented linebacker later than the first night of the draft.

TREMAINE EDMUNDS


There may not be a more impressive athletic specimen in the entire draft than Tremaine Edmunds (Virginia Tech). The nineteen-year-old linebacker has the dimensions to rush the edge, the speed to play off the ball, the power to stop ball carriers on contact, and the length to cancel out passing routes in his zone. He could play all three linebacker positions in the 49ers defense, and he could develop into a LEO with time and coaching. His versatility would be particularly enticing to a creative defensive coordinator who wants to shift between defensive calls without having to swap personnel groups.


Edmunds' highlight videos are impressive. He outruns the offensive front to the point of attack and appears to wrap himself around the ball carrier like a giant octopus, allowing no opportunity to advance the ball beyond first contact. Watching Edmunds in a full game tells a different story. He does not appear to know what to do once the offense complicates his reads with motions, shifts, and misdirected backfield action. Edmunds' read step is often incorrect, but his superior athleticism has allowed him to recover against less talented competition. His false steps would allow NFL lineman to cut him off from the play if those missteps continue.

If the 49ers do draft Edmunds, they would be wise to play him at SAM in 2018. The position offers simpler reads and would allow him to play to his athleticism with less responsibility to diagnose difficult plays rapidly. He could move to one of the nickel linebacker positions on passing downs, and he could eventually develop into an edge rusher for those sub packages. Eventually, if Edmunds develops the ability to process reads more quickly and accurately, he could move off the ball to play MIKE or WILL.

Poll

  • Which defensive end or linebacker would you like the 49ers to draft with the ninth pick?
  • Harold Landry
  • Marcus Davenport
  • Roquan Smith
  • Tremaine Edmunds