The 49ers already have a young, promising and talented defense, but still need some key acquisitions to become a great defense — especially at the cornerback position. The cornerback position certainly needs improving, specifically after the trade of CB Rashard Robinson to the New York Jets. Rookie Ahkello Whiterspoon has looked promising, as has Dontae Johnson but both players can still improve their performance. I expect the 49ers to target depth at the corner position because a healthy pass-rush will help these young corners in coverage (I will address this later). Here are a few players who have stood out and could be developed into starters in the NFL without having to use a first-round pick:
CB Kevin Toliver out of LSU (#2), listed at 6’2, 190lbs, has good size and has decent speed. Toliver is a good tackler, he’s patient at the line of scrimmage, and tracks the ball well in the air. His main issue that needs to be improved on is his consistency awareness. He might be available in the second or third round, and could be looked at as a value pick because Toliver has a first-round skill set.
CB Adonis Alexander of Virgina Tech is listed at 6’3, 200lbs, he possesses a huge body with good length and decent speed. He has above average ball skills and makes plays downfield. Alexander is no slouch in the run game, as he is a willing tackler who wraps up well. He should be viewed as a developmental corner that could be available anywhere between the second and fourth round, depending on his forty-yard dash time.
CB Isaiah Oliver of Colorado (#26) is listed at 6’1, 190lbs, and appears sound in press coverage, plays the ball very well in the air, with thirty-two passes defended in college per CUBuffs.com. He has solid ball skills and is willing tackler, he may not be the most fluid corner, but he definitely looks fast enough. Currently, I’d value him as a second/third round guy.
Moving on to another critical position that needs an upgrade for the 49ers: edge-rusher. If upgraded, this position group will cause a chain reaction by helping the young corners immensely. The added pressure on quarterbacks will force them to throw earlier resulting in less cover time for corners. With Arik Armstead and Aaron Lynch both out with injuries and having failed to make major impacts when presented with opportunities, their tenures with the 49ers could honestly be over. DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas have been very good, and DJ Jones might be the future at NT/DT. There’s only a need for a freak pass-rusher in the front four — a rusher that will beat tackles and stress offensive-lines repeatedly. This will likely be the position addressed first in the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft.
The main culprits as of now include Bradley Chubb of NC State (#9) 6’4, 260lbs. A speed-demon off the edge with the ability to bend his way around tackles to sack quarterbacks. Chubb is known as a sound tackler who sheds blocks quickly, as well as a strong player capable of setting the edge. At this moment, he looks like a top-10 pick. By the way, he has already been scouted by the 49ers this season.
Clelin Ferrell of Clemson (#99) listed at 6’5, 260lbs, is a freak athlete. He plays as fast as any linebacker. He plays strong against the run and does a decent job rushing the passer, but where I worry about Ferrell is how much of his production (six sacks, seven tackles-for-loss and eight quarterback-pressures this year) is down to being on a defensive-line that has two other first-round prospects in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence? Both of these players see their fair share of double-teams, could it be a reason Ferrell excels? Ferrell needs to test well to be a late first-round to early second-round pick.
Arden Key of LSU (#7) 6’6, 265lbs. Key is a long, rangy defensive-end reminiscent of Leonard Floyd coming out of Georgia –who has excelled for the Chicago Bears. The Louisiana State product is long, fast, and powerful, and is able to bend the corner very well. He’s extremely athletic and boasts a great get off. If he can stay healthy and locked in, then Key will likely develop into a good pro. Right now, he’s projected as a mid first-round pick. He currently has five sacks on the season.
Harold Landry of Boston College (#7) 6’3, 250lbs. is a tough edge-rusher with solid hands. Landry is a productive player who has five sacks this season, and had 16.5 sacks in 2016 (a Boston College single season record). Landry is a high-motor player who will create turnovers. NFL scouts already love him, as right now he is projected as a first-round pick.