There's no question that the 49ers need to improve their defense by increasing production from the edge rushers. While a lot of attention has been paid to the edge talent in the draft, the 49ers only project to have six selections in this draft (the team is expected to receive a sixth-round compensatory selection), and they will need to add more than one edge rusher to make the position one of strength. While the team could still double up on edge rushers in the draft, there are some interesting veteran options that could be available in free agency. While free agents don't offer the same optimism or affordability as a draft pick, they have already demonstrated what they can do in the NFL, which can make them seem like less of a gamble, even though they come with a much higher cap hit than a wage-controlled rookie. We are going to look at what one prospective free agent edge rusher has shown in his first four years in the league.

Za'Darius Smith collected 8.5 sacks last year for the Baltimore Ravens, and he did so while only starting 8 games. He has demonstrated toughness by playing through a sports hernia that had to be repaired after the season, and by playing with a hamstring strain that caused him to miss practice in October. He is a height/weight specimen, in that he stands just over six feet, four inches, and he weighs a lean 274 pounds. Smith is not an explosive athlete. His combine was lackluster, and his poor testing shows clearly when assessing his change of direction, flexibility, and acceleration on the field. He is much more of a power player than a speed player, as his dominant play strength allows him to compensate for his limited athleticism. His arms are short for an edge player, at roughly 32.5 inches, which costs him significant leverage against long-armed tackles, but he has managed to adjust his technique to limit the negative effect of his poor arm length.

RUN DEFENSE


Smith's tremendous play strength allows him to set a dominant edge against the run, which would allow him to perform well at either edge of the 49ers run defense. As a LEO, he would be an asset in the run game, as he rarely gives ground to offensive tackles in one-on-one blocking scenarios. He accounts for his short arms by turning perpendicular to his blocker and holding him at length with a long arm (a single, fully-extended arm that gains structural integrity by locking out the elbow joint). As a SAM, he would positively dominate tight ends, as he consistently knocks them back one or two yards into the backfield while setting the edge. Smith is not an explosive tackler, but he is a secure wrap-up tackler in his gap. He can be outrun to the sideline on wide running plays, even after winning on the edge, because he can't get up to speed quickly enough to corral speedier running backs when they bounce the play. If the off-ball linebackers and safeties are flowing fast, this presents little danger to the defense.

PASS RUSH


As a pass rusher, Smith is less of a fit for the 49ers. While his 8.5 sacks would have placed him second overall and first among edge players on the 49ers in 2018, he did all of his best work rushing against guards, where he also collected nearly all of his first move wins. While almost half of his sacks came on the edge, they could all be written off as coverage sacks, or clean up sacks (when he is able to track down the quarterback fleeing the pocket after another teammate forces the quarterback off of his spot).

Against guards, Smith's short arms are less of a disadvantage, and his agility, which is below average on the edge, becomes a strength against guards, who are typically less nimble than offensive tackles. He wins quickly with an array of simple moves. Even though his hand strikes lack violence, his strength allows him to power through the side of the man he is attacking to clear a path to the quarterback. Once he clears the blocker, he achieves a forward lean that allows him to maximize his limited talent and accelerate quickly to the quarterback.

As an edge rusher, Smith is significantly more limited. The impressive long arm he uses so dominantly in the run game lacks the explosion and violence to displace offensive tackles into the pocket when he attempts to bull rush. His limited balance and flexibility make it impossible for him to corner the edge with speed and bend. His counter moves are embarrassingly bad, and his favorite counter is an inside spin which works so slowly that he actually loses ground while attempting to counter inside. Two seconds after the snap, it is fairly common to see Smith's rush completely stalled, with him seemingly content to contain the pocket and spy the quarterback to see if he can collect another clean up sack.

VALUE TO 49ERS


To wrap it up, I think Za'Darius Smith is a tough, productive defender who would excel in the Big End role in the 49ers defense: an edge defender on base downs and interior pass rusher in sub packages. Unfortunately, the 49ers' roster is full of those players, including Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair, and Kentavius Street, so Smith doesn't strengthen a position of weakness for the 49ers in a way that his listed position, as he doesn't offer much as an edge rusher. Smith is likely to secure a big free agent contract, and the 49ers should not be the team to give it to him.