Last in yards allowed per game. Last in rushing yards allowed per game. Last in points per game.

The 49ers’ 2016 defensive stats do not make attractive reading for anyone associated with the team. Only their pass defense could be considered passable and with the departure of Tramaine Brock, the worrying lack of depth at the cornerback position has also been exposed, whilst it is unclear if the team has a free safety who can play in their new defensive scheme.

The change to an aggressive, one gap defensive scheme should theoretically enable the players to play faster than they could under Jim O’Neill. DeForest Buckner has already mentioned that he is excited to be able to be playing more aggressively and there can be little doubt that both recent first round picks, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner would benefit from playing in a scheme when they are attacking from the snap, as their frames are not conducive to read and react defense. 49ers fans would likely find some amusement if Trent Baalke managed to construct a decent, aggressive 4-3 defense when supposedly trying to build a 3-4, showing the clear divide between the front office and the coaching staff in the past few seasons.

Whilst injuries and a bad defensive scheme may have had some bearing in the incredibly poor performance of the 49ers’ defense in 2016, there can still be little doubt that the 49ers have a lack of quality at key positions on defense.

As previously alluded to, one positive going into the draft is that a number of the players currently on the roster look to be good fits within the defensive scheme expected to be employed by Robert Saleh. Nevertheless, the 49ers can and should be looking to improve in the 2017 NFL Draft, especially on defense due to the money spent on offensive talent in free agency.

When considering potential needs and options, one must consider how players on the roster and prospective rookies would fit within the 49ers new scheme:

Need levels: 

  • 10 – no backup calibre options at the position
  • 9 – poor backup calibre options at the position
  • 8 – average backup calibre options at the position
  • 7 – good backup/poor starting calibre player at the position with backups/average player with no depth
  • 6 – average starting calibre player at the position
  • 5 – good starting calibre player at the position
  • 4 – very good starting calibre player at the position/good player with good backup quality player(s)
  • 3 – Pro Bowl calibre player at the position/multiple good to average starters
  • 2 – All-Pro calibre player/multiple Pro-Bowl to good starters
  • 1 – Likely Hall of Famer/multiple Pro Bowl players at the position

*Options are just a selection of the possible players

Strong side defensive end

This player has a key role stopping the run on the strong side of the defense, sometimes having to face a tight end or a tackle. Robert Saleh referred to the position as the 6-tech in his press conference.

Given their current personnel, the 49ers look likely to echo the Seahawks, who use Michael Bennett at this spot. He plays outside on running downs, before kicking inside and rushing the passer in obvious passing situations.

Right now, Arik Armstead looks like the best option at this position for the 49ers, though he has struggled in run defense which is something of a red flag. He certainly has a high ability to kick inside and rush from a 3-tech spot on passing downs however, in addition to being a very talented rusher from his normal position at 5, 6 or 7 tech. He posted the highest pass rushing productivity amongst all 3-4 defensive ends in 2016, often rushing from 5-tech.

DeForest Buckner could also play this spot and based on Saleh’s words in his press conference, Tank Carradine is also being viewed as an option at this spot. Similarly, Buckner’s fellow rookie Ronald Blair flashed on occasion, especially towards the end of the season.

Need level: 4 (good player with good backup quality players)

Early round options:

  • Solomon Thomas
  • Chris Wormley

The 49ers have significant other needs, and using one of their first two picks on one of these players who have to truly represent BPA. Wormley at 34 would seem better value. He would be a solid option given his high effort and strong run defending ability.

Mid round options

  • Nazair Jones
  • Jeremiah Ledbetter

This would seem like the best time to pick up a player, especially given Carradine could be moved on in a year or perhaps less. Ledbetter represents a player with high upside and excellent athletic traits whilst Jones is an excellent run defender with large injury concerns. Both could get on a rotation early and build from there, though Jones is probably just a two-down player.

Later round options

  • Isaac Rochell
  • Collin Bevins

Two developmental players. Both with big question marks and probable roster bubble guys given the existing depth at the position.

3-tech defensive tackle

The position likely filled by the 49ers’ premier interior pass rusher.

DeForest Buckner projects well at this position, especially given his experience and success as a rusher from a 3-tech spot as a rookie. Armstead and Blair could back him up and play in a similar role, whilst Quinton Dial would offer more of a run stopping focus at the position.

Need level: 4 (good player with good backup quality players)

Early round options:

  • Jonathan Allen
  • Montravius Adams

Allen has incredible talent but has seen has stock fall due to shoulder arthritis. If Adams is available in the second round it would be interesting to see if the 49ers can resist drafting him.

Mid round options:

  • Larry Ogunjobi
  • Carlos Watkins
  • Tanzel Smart

Again if the 49ers were going to pick an impact player at this position this would be the best spot given the depth and the opportunity for them to get into the rotation and then develop. All three options would be interesting and offer different traits. Watkins also has the ability to play over the nose.

Later round option:

  • Charles Walker

Few genuine options but Walker could be intriguing, provided he can leave his lengthy injury history behind.

Nose tackle

The 49ers’ premier interior run stopper. This player will likely be a 2 down player.

Free agent signing Earl Mitchell is pencilled in as the started but he will have to bounce back after two injury affected down years. Quinton Dial could play this role, as could Chris Jones. 49ers fans will probably hope they don’t see Mike Purcell at this spot.

Need level: 7 (poor starting calibre player at the position)

Early round options:

Nose tackle, as a pure two down position, is not a position that should be drafted early on, especially given the 49ers’ other needs.

Mid round options: 

  • Elijah Qualls
  • Ryan Glasgow
  • Carlos Watkins

Given other needs this may still be too soon to pick up a nose tackle, though Glasgow especially could be available later in the draft. Qualls looks like a very solid prospect and also has a surprising ability as a pass rusher.

Late round options:

  • Stevie Tu’ikolovatu
  • DeAngelo Brown

Tu’ikolovatu has had significant weight issues but if he can be kept on a strict regime could be a useful part of the rotation. Brown is a different player and is built differently, but is very good against the run.

LEO pass rusher

The 49ers’ premier pass rusher would be expected to play here. Saleh indicated that the team are looking for real explosiveness and bend round the edge for this role. Backups will likely operate as specialist pass rushers on third downs.

Saleh indicated that Aaron Lynch will be seen as the LEO defensive end and will likely enter training camp as the starter. Additionally, Eli Harold or Ahmad Brooks could back him up in the role but the 49ers have very few other options unless they decide Carradine could also play here.

Need level: *8* (special circumstance, average player with no depth (normally level 7) but of crucial importance to the scheme)

Early round options:

  • Derek Barnett
  • Jordan Willis

Assuming Myles Garrett is off the board, these are two of the best pass rushers available. Barnett could be an option later in the top 10 if the 49ers can trade down. Willis falls at a difficult point as someone who is most likely to be picked up between 20 and 35. The 49ers may need to trade up to get him but if they can trade down as well that would be more viable. Willis is an über-athlete and tested much better than Barnett. If the 49ers can they need to come away with a LEO in the top two rounds.

Mid round options:

  • Derek Rivers
  • Trey Hendrickson

These are two high-upside players that if the 49ers do not go LEO in rounds 1 and 2 might be their best bets going forward as guys who could develop into legitimate starters but would likely sit behind Lynch for a year and play purely as rushers on third downs that would be perfect for their development. Rivers might go in round 2, but if he is available at the top of 3 he could develop into a stud starter at LEO. Hendrickson, if available in round 4, could be worth using one of the 49ers’ two fourth rounders to add further depth to the position.

Late round options:

  • Joe Mathis

Outside of Mathis, who is only available due to a significant injury history, the 49ers should simply not have any options here. Even if they do draft Mathis, they ought to have picked another player earlier on or risk being left with no depth again. If the 49ers have not picked a LEO at this point, something has gone wrong.

Conclusion to Part 1

From a purely need perspective, the 49ers should be prioritising a LEO pass rusher and a run stuffing nose tackle, but throughout the process, there has been significant talk about them drafting Solomon Thomas.

This is unsurprising, despite the fact that he would be competing with the 49ers’ last two first round picks. Thomas is ranked by many as a top 5 player in addition to being perceived to be a Michael Bennett clone, thus perfect for the 49ers in their new scheme.

It will be intriguing to see how the 49ers approach adding to their defensive line in the Draft, but I imagine we will see a considerable amount of draft capital spent in this area.