49ers

49ers defensive depth chart: Few starting roles secure before offseason

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USATSI

49ers defensive depth chart: Few starting roles secure before offseason

When the 49ers concluded their 2017 season, there were not a whole lot of question marks on defense heading into 2018.

This year, very few positions are settled on a defense under Robert Saleh’s direction that ranked 13th in the NFL in total yards allowed but 28th in points allowed and last in NFL history in creating takeaways. (Seriously, their seven turnovers forced were the worst in the recorded history of the NFL.)

At this point, there is only one sure thing at each level of the defense: DeForest Buckner will start at defensive tackle; Fred Warner will line up at middle linebacker, and Richard Sherman will be at left cornerback.

Every other position will feature some form of competition or staff decision on which spots fit which players the best.

Defensive line

DE: Arik Armstead
NT: D.J. Jones
DT: DeForest Buckner
DE: Solomon Thomas

The only change from the start of the 2018 season, for now, is the expected move to get younger with Jones at nose tackle in the 49ers’ base defense in place of veteran Earl Mitchell.

The 49ers appear likely to guarantee Armstead’s $9 million salary on the fifth-year option for the 2019 season because of his exceptional play on run downs.

The 49ers believe Thomas’ niche is as an inside player. He will definitely line up at defensive tackle to rush the passer on nickel downs. The 49ers need a true “Leo” to move Thomas inside on all downs.

Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair were the 49ers’ top edge rushers this season. The goal for the 49ers in March and April will be to acquire two upgrades for the team’s starting nickel defense – one in free agency and one in the draft. If the 49ers are comfortable with Dante Fowler’s character, they will go after him in free agency. Then, they would be assured of selecting either Nick Bosa or Josh Allen with the No. 2 overall pick.

Linebackers

SLB: TBA
MLB: Fred Warner
WLB: Elijah Lee

Two of the three linebackers positions are unsettled as the 49ers head into the offseason. Only Warner’s starting role is guaranteed after he performed admirably as a rookie.

The strong side linebacker position does not see a lot of action. If the 49ers were to select Allen with the No. 2 overall pick, he could play that spot on base downs and then line up on the edge in nickel situations. Mark Nzeocha was the team’s top player at strong side linebacker. Nzeocha, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, is best-suited as a backup and special-teams player. There is no indication at this point that Pita Taumoepenu can rise to become a starter.

Lee will unquestionably face a challenge in the offseason to hold onto the weak side position that he inherited when Reuben Foster was released following his arrest at the team hotel in Tampa. Veteran Malcolm Smith is well-versed in the defensive system, but he has not been able to remain healthy enough to be a factor. The 49ers are likely to increase the competition with a mid- to late-round draft pick or a veteran acquisition.

Defensive backs

LCB: Richard Sherman
RCB: Ahkello Witherspoon/Tarvarius Moore
Nickel: K’Waun Williams
FS: Adrian Colbert/Jaquiski Tartt /D.J. Reed
SS: Tartt/Marcell Harris

The only sure thing in the 49ers’ secondary is Sherman will return as a starter. The 49ers believe he will be even better in 2019 because he will have a full, healthy offseason to get in better condition and work on his game. Every other position is a toss-up.

Witherspoon and Moore are the team’s third-round draft picks from each of the past two years. Witherspoon struggled after entering his second NFL season as the starter. He played better before a knee injury sidelined him for the final three games. Moore showed a lot of promise in those final three games after spending most of the season working on his conversion from safety. Witherspoon and Moore could receive some additional competition, too.

Williams is solid as the team’s nickel back, but D.J. Reed also showed he is capable of stepping into a more prominent role.

The safety positions are completely up in the air. A year ago, there was no question Colbert and Tartt were the starters. Harris played very well late in the season and could win the starting job at strong safety. If that’s the case, Tartt would then be considered to start at free safety, along with Colbert and Reed.

The 49ers could add a veteran safety. Sherman said he would love to reunite with his former Seattle teammate, Earl Thomas, who will be a free agent. “I’m sure he’ll have a plethora of opportunities,” Sherman said late in the season, “and I’m sure we’re going to throw our hat in the ring.”

Also, do not forget about Jimmie Ward. The 49ers’ coaching staff loves his tenacity, as well as his versatility to play cornerback, nickel and free safety. Ward was considered one of the 49ers’ best 11 defensive players last season, and he graded out exceptionally high in the weeks before he sustained a season-ending fractured forearm. The only knock on Ward is his ability to remain healthy. Four of his five NFL seasons have ended with him going on injured reserve with broken bones. Ward is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. If the price is right, the organization would want to bring him back.

Here's how things look with the 49ers' offense, as they enter the 2019 offseason:

49ers offensive depth chart: Looking to add another playmaker

 

NFL mock draft 2019: Pundits agree on who 49ers should pick at No. 2

NFL mock draft 2019: Pundits agree on who 49ers should pick at No. 2

The 2019 NFL Draft is less than a week away. Hard to believe, right?

After adding some quality players in free agency, the 49ers will continue bolstering their roster with Thursday's draft. No one knows for sure what direction San Francisco will choose to go with its first selection, but based on the most recent mock drafts, most expect the 49ers to add a premium defensive player with the No. 2 overall pick.

[RELATED: 49ers can find starters at edge rusher, receiver in draft]

That makes plenty of sense, considering San Francisco ranked dead last in takeaways (seven) and seventh-worst in points allowed per game (26.6) last season.

Here’s a selection from various NFL mock drafts highlighting the players being associated with the 49ers and the No. 2 pick:

SI.com: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "Even with Dee Ford in the fold, the 49ers are desperate for disruptive edge rushers after forcing a record-low seven takeaways last year. Bosa is the best in this draft, which outweighs all those complimentary things he said about Spiro Agnew on his Geocities website."

ESPN.com: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "Best. Player. Available. Bosa is the No. 1 prospect in this class, and he'll help off the edge in any defense."

CBS Sports: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "Knowing full well they can get out of Dee Ford's mega deal sooner rather than later, the Niners get a new face for their defense, not to mention the most promising of any of their many first-round D-linemen."

SB Nation: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "Although the 49ers traded for Dee Ford, that doesn’t totally solve the team’s issue with rushing the passer. Ford is a good, if inconsistent, player. Adding Bosa will take some of the attention off of him. If San Francisco wants to do as much four-man rushing as possible, having two edge rushers is vital."

WalterFootball.com: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "Bosa has a tremendous skill set, and he was off to a great start in 2018 before injuring his knee. He's a top-three lock unless some Laremy Tunsil-esque news breaks about him"

NFL.com: Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama
What they said: "PROJECTED TRADE WITH RAIDERS. Williams adds yet another elite talent to the 49ers' defensive front. The Niners get the Raiders' second-round pick this year and one of their first-round picks next year (they have an extra one from the Khalil Mack trade) in the move. As for that compensation, remember, the Colts did receive three second-round picks so the Jets could move up three spots in the top 10 last year. Anything can happen!"

49ers would net second first-round pick with trade back from No. 2

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MATT MAIOCCO

49ers would net second first-round pick with trade back from No. 2

When the 49ers made the trade with the Chicago Bears two years ago to move back one spot, there was some sense of mystery in the team’s draft room. The 49ers were not sure if the Bears were going to select the player the 49ers would have taken in that spot.

Team executive Paraag Marathe figured the Bears were targeting Mitchell Trubisky because it he felt it was unlikely a team would pay the price to move up that high in the draft to select a player at a position other than quarterback.

The 49ers had Solomon Thomas rated as the draft's No. 2 prospect behind Myles Garrett. Thomas was still available when the 49ers went back on the clock.

Again, the 49ers have the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. And, it seems logical, that if they had the opportunity to trade back, it would be with a team that has its eyes on a quarterback.

Another question is whether there is a team selecting in some proximity to the 49ers that would be determined to add a quarterback – most likely, Kyler Murray. That would mean that the Cardinals ultimately decide to go with a defensive player, Nick Bosa or Quinnen Williams, with the No. 1 overall selection.

If another team has interest in moving up to No. 2, the 49ers would be able to pick up at least a second first-round draft pick, giving the 49ers three selections within the first 36 slots in the draft.

If Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock want Murray fully assimilated for the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas in 2020, they certainly have the draft capital to make a deal with the 49ers.

In such a scenario, the Raiders could send the 49ers their picks at No. 4 and 24 overall. The 49ers, most likely, would also get the Raiders’ fourth-round pick (No. 106), while shipping back to the Raiders a sixth-round selection (No. 176).

In such a scenario, the 49ers could end up with Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen at No. 4, and perhaps pick up a top cornerback, such as Rock Ya-Sin of Temple or Washington’s Byron Murphy, at No. 24 overall.

The New York Giants are expected to select a quarterback who would be viewed as Eli Manning’s heir apparent at some point in this week's draft. The Giants wanted the 49ers’ pick at No. 2 in a proposed trade for Odell Beckham, but they were not willing to give up the No. 6 overall spot.

In order for the Giants to make a deal for the 49ers’ first-round selection, they would have to hand over their first-round picks at Nos. 6 and 17, along with a likely fifth-round pick at No. 132 overall.

Perhaps, the 49ers could still select Allen at No. 6. And at No. 17, the 49ers could think outside the box and pair tight end George Kittle with his former Iowa teammate Noah Fant. The 49ers need another threat or two in the passing game, and No. 17 is likely too high for any of the wide receivers.

Here is a look at the 49ers' current list of picks for the NFL draft:

49ERS 2019 DRAFT PICKS
1. First round: No. 2 overall
2. Second round: No. 36 overall
3. Third round: No. 67 overall
4. Fourth round: No. 104 overall
5. Sixth round: No. 176 overall
6. Sixth round: No. 212 overall (compensatory)