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Defensive line options for 49ers at each stage of the draft

© Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers no longer have DeForest Buckner. Tell yourself it won’t make much of a difference if that’s how you want to cope with that trade, but that’s false. Buckner is one of the NFL’s elite interior linemen, and his presence in all facets of the game — drawing double teams, collapsing the pocket, shedding blocks to make run stops, pressuring the quarterback conistently — will be greatly missed by the 49ers.

There are still plenty of affordable free agent options for the 49ers, and you should expect that the team will make moves to address depth there, especially with Sheldon Day a free agent (he’s far from irreplaceable, but as a backup for an injury-prone D.J. Jones, he is necessary, and capable).

So, the 49ers are likely going to have to draft an interior presence. Here’s a frame of reference for what DeForest Buckner looked like in his senior season at Oregon:

The first word that comes to mind? Disruption.

He obviously didn’t have the same polish he has now, and you’re not going to find that in the draft, at least not right away. But if you really want to find someone who can replace some of what Buckner did, you need a disruptor.

Jones is a very good option for the 49ers, but he’s not proven he can remain healthy and is a true nose tackle. He’s far from a consistent pass-rush presence, at least in the sense that he can open up space consistently for other pass-rushers, and he’s also a better run fit than an every-down guy.

And to be clear, Buckner was a better prospect than any interior defensive lineman in this draft.

There are two routes you can really take in this draft when it comes to recouping some of Buckner’s impact: 1. Draft one of the two “elite” options at No. 13, 2. Draft one of the two borderline elite options at No. 31, or 3. Use those higher picks on a wide receiver, corner, lineman, edge rusher, and wait for a consistent, physical option in the later rounds.

What you’re looking for in these later rounds is consistency at the point of attack. You don’t expect the powerful get-off like with Javon Kinlaw or Ross Blacklock, but you can find consistent pocket collapsers and guys who evaluate play-actions well, cover back on runs, and most importantly, necessitate double teams.

Note: 20-yard shuttle times are used below instead of 40-yard dashes because they convey short-burst quickness and agility better, especially for a defensive lineman (best time was 4.31 by Alex Highsmith).

Pick at No. 13

Derrick Brown

Height: 6’4 5/8″ 

Weight: 326 pounds

20-yard shuttle: 4.79 seconds

Bench press: 28 reps

Best college season (senior year): 54 tackles, 11.5 for a loss, 4.0 sacks

Pros: Brown is an absolutely massive presence who consistently drew double teams in the SEC and created quarterback pressure. He had 4.0 sacks in his senior season, and that was while being a better run defender than pass defender. He might have the best IQ out of any interior defensive linemen in the draft and reads runs and screens extraordinarily well. When he’s at his best, he’s bowling over guards and flushing the quarterback out of the pocket. Not fast, but has surprising athleticism and a high motor. His get-off is painful to watch from the perspective of an offensive linemen in terms of how quick he sends his mass towards the offense.

Cons: Despite his size and strength, he can get stood up, which is often a result of poor pad positioning; he can get frustrated if his initial move doesn’t work and look back too quickly to help out in pass coverage; normally his awareness is a net positive, but he can sometimes abandon his rush too quickly. He sticks to power too often on passing downs and can get knocked out of place.

49ers fit: Brown will be an immediately useful interior presence, but may be more run-orientied than Kinlaw, if it’s going to be D.J. Jones and Armstead next to each other. He’ll likely be gone before this pick.

Javon Kinlaw

Height: 6’5 1/8″ 

Weight: 324 pounds

20-yard shuttle: N/A

Bench press: N/A

Best college season (junior year): 35 tackles, 6.0 for loss, 6.0 sacks

Pros: Has the most explosive get-off in the draft, and will wreak havok on every passing down. If isolated, he will likely force the quarterback out of the pocket. Uses club, rip and swipe moves to get by and necessitates double teams on every down.

Cons: His awareness is poor and he gets tangled up with offensive linemen far too often. Needs to be far better on run downs, in terms of following the play and re-positioning his eyes to track the quarterback and running back. He has a high motor, but when a pass or run play leaves the pocket, he looks gassed or unable to track back.

49ers fit: Probably be a better fit for the 49ers than Brown in terms of allowing Armstead to move around, and create dynamic pocket pressure on the interior. In terms of pass-rush pressure, he’s the best San Francisco will be able to find in the draft. Very raw, and will only improve, said he’s looking for the right coaching (CC: Kris Kocurek).

Pick at No. 31 (or early second round in trade down)

Justin Madubuike

Height: 6’2 5/8″ 

Weight: 293 pounds

20-yard shuttle: N/A

Bench press: 31 reps (4th-most)

Best college season (junior year): 45 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks

Pros: Tremendous power with a dynamic get-off and low pad level and motor, combined with rip move allows him to be a problem in both the pass game. If not immediately double-teamed, especially on run downs, will blow up the interior.

Cons: Sometimes has trouble coming off his blocks and re-adjusting. Can come out of his stance too early on some passing downs when expecting short throws. He doesn’t shed blocks as quickly or effectively as he should when rushing from the outside.

49ers fit: He would be a decent option after Kinlaw, but if the 49ers keep this pick and have Blacklock or Gallimore on the board, they may be better options here. Still, he’s a problem one-on-one and would likely create space if used on the interior. The closer he was to the center the better, so that creates some fit issues in terms of Jones. Would be a high pick to just draft a backup for Jones.

Ross Blacklock

Height: 6’3 1/8″ 

Weight: 290 pounds

20-yard shuttle: 4.67 seconds

Bench press: N/A

Best college season (junior year): 40 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks

Pros: Has a really eye-popping swim move that he can use from either a nose or 3-technique position. If asked to, he’ll blow up the point of attack and leave a heap of bodies on the floor. Used on frequent stunts, so has proven positional flexibility. Can really swallow up space and take on blockers without being overpowered.

Cons: Doesn’t shed blocks on run downs well, and needs improvement in adjusting to the ball. His awareness isn’t poor, but it could use improvement.

49ers fit: In my opinion, he’s the next-most dynamic interior player outside of Kinlaw and Brown. His get-off is rapid, pushing him immediately into, or through the line of scrimmage. He adjusts well, and would provide a different look from D.J. Jones in terms of explosiveness and adaptability.

Neville Gallimore

Height: 6’2″ 

Weight: 304 pounds

20-yard shuttle: 5.01 seconds (2nd-slowest)

Bench press: 23 reps

Best college season (5th-year senior year): 29 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 4.0 sacks

Pros: Really showed his ability versus Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game. Sheds blocks in run downs better than most and draws a lot of attention from opposing offensive lines. Can get skinny and split an A gap when he’s presented with the opportunity, while also having a sense of using leverage against linemen in run downs. Has a get-off that’s a perfect blend of power and speed. Way faster straight-line speed than should be expected. Relentless motor.

Cons: Not very laterally-gifted and has trouble getting involved once he’s pushed to the side, so his viability on stunts is questionable, at least from the outset.

49ers fit: Gallimore is has dynamic pass-rush talent. The power he packs with his hand punches and rip moves are cause for long-term and immediate optimism. If he can improve his agility to get quicker laterally, he will be an eternal problem for opposing offensive lines.

Trade down, pick Day 2

There aren’t any prospects listed here because I think the late-second and third round is going to be a poor time to draft an interior defensive linemen. Davon Hamilton from Ohio State is intriguing, but he’s not worth a third-round selection from the 49ers’ point of view. This would be an area better served for a solid edge rusher like Kenny Willekes or Bradlee Anae, or adding a corner to replace Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon or K’Waun Williams. All three, along with Jaquiski Tartt will be unrestricted free agents next summer. Emmanuel Moseley will be a restricted free agent.

Having watched tape of all the projected options in this range — Hamilton, Raekwon Davis, Marlon Davidson, Larrell Murchison, Leki Fotu, Rashard Lawrence — there’s no justifying using a pick here, unless one of the players in that above category fell.

Pick on Day 3

This is probably the best value for the 49ers. They can find value in Jones, free agency, and a late-round interior defensive line selection, at least for 2020. There will be plenty of back-end value, especially for a time that thrives at this point in the draft. Shoring up the edge might be even more of a priority (adding someone like Willekes, an NFL-ready edge presence who’s fantastic against the run), to allow Arik Armstead to play inside more and give Dee Ford and Nick Bosa rest.

Jordan Elliot

Height: 6’3 7/8″

Weight: 302 pounds

20-yard shuttle: 4.73 seconds

Bench press: 24 reps

Best college season (junior year): 44 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks

Pros: He doesn’t lose ground, pretty much ever. He drew double teams frequently and was able to rip through when isolated in one-on-one situations. Has solid play recognition capabilities and presented problems consistently in the SEC, which is an impossibly difficult task. He’s one of the handful of guys who suffers from playing on a sub-par team in a competitive conference. That will benefit NFL teams who are looking at him.

Cons: Can jump out of his stance, and have a poor pad level, which prevents him from engaging/challenging blockers on an every-down basis. Lacks some polish and explosiveness in shedding blocks. His play recognition leaves room to be improved, as he can get caught up in blocks and fail to re-assess the play and help out in other areas.

49ers fit: Like everyone in this category, wouldn’t be an elite option, but has solid upside to develop as D.J. Jones’ initial backup, but also play as a three-technique. Did a decent amount of outside rushing in college, so has potential flexibility on the outside if needed.

Tyler Clark (not invited to Combine)

Height: 6’3″ 

Weight: 300 pounds

20-yard shuttle: N/A

Bench press: N/A

Best college season (sophomore year): 41 tackles, 6.0 for loss, 2.5 sacks

Pros: He’s a versatile, physical presence who punished subpar college offensive linemen in one-on-ones. Played both outside and on the interior and consistently created pressure on the pocket, even when double-teamed, or at least created space elsewhere. Keeps a nice, low pad level to get consistent leverage for himself.

Cons: Doesn’t have the quickest get-off, can sometimes be too patient at the point of attack. He tends to rely on his swim move, but hasn’t shown much else in terms of creatively developing pressure. Didn’t improve much after his sophomore season.

49ers fit: Clark and Coatney are my favorite picks for the 49ers in terms of value. How the defensive line anchor of the best rush defense in college football failed to receive an NFL Combine invite is beyond me. If you want to see what Clark is capable of, go back and look at this Rose Bowl film. He has tremendous upside, and his floor is as a solid interior presence. He will exploit one-on-ones against lesser guards and provide shiftiness in disengaging blocks to recover on rushing downs. He likely would have benefited from the Combine and a Pro Day, with solid athletic ability for his size.

Josiah Coatney

Height: 6’3 3/8″

Weight: 308 pounds

20-yard shuttle: 4.82 seconds

Bench press: 22 reps

Best college season (sophomore year): 40 tackles, 8.0 for loss, 3.5 sacks

Pros: Not sure I’ve seen a single clip of him getting pushed back, regardless of whether he was double-teamed or not. Maintains tremendous leverage, uses his size to his advantage and maintains gap integrity in the run game. Has a rip move that exemplifies that leverage exploitation. He played outside in a 3-4 set frequently, which probably drew away from his strengths. Utterly relentless motor. Wins most of his battles, and at the very least, rarely loses ground.

Cons: He’s not an incredibly dynamic rusher, especially from the outside. But for an under-the-radar guy, he’s not very flawed.

49ers fit: Part of the knock on his stats and supposed decline is that he was next to a capable teammate in Benito Jones, who is also another option here. At this point in the draft, anything you can find that’s serviceable is a benefit. Coatney would be a perfect backup to D.J. Jones and can slide to the 3-tech position too.


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