49ers 2018 NFL Draft Big Board: To solidify an improving unit, an impact defender is needed
We investigate what the 49ers should do in the first round by providing our version of their big board
The San Francisco 49ers looked as though they might be headed toward a league-worst record and No. 1 draft pick last season before Jimmy Garoppolo took over. Now the Niners look like an ascendant threat in the NFC West.
The 2018 NFL Draft is still hours away, but the San Francisco 49ers have already nailed their second-round pick. John Lynch sent what ended up becoming the No. 43 overall selection to the New England Patriots at last year's trade deadline, receiving Jimmy G in return. It's difficult to imagine that trade turning out any better for San Francisco than it already has. Garoppolo looks every bit the part of a franchise quarterback, and after making some additional moves this offseason, there's plenty of reason for optimism.
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San Francisco's free-agent spending spree helped plug several holes that looked like they'd need filling prior to the draft. Weston Richburg was brought in to man the pivot spot on the offensive line. Richard Sherman gave them a high-upside cornerback. Jerick McKinnon added another flexible piece to the offensive backfield. Even Jonathan Cooper and Jeremiah Attaochu, while not exactly star-caliber players, were sensible additions at positions of need.
Still, it's not as though the 49ers are a perfect team. Even after adding Sherman, they could still use help in the secondary. They were the league's No. 28 pass defense last season, per Football Outsiders, and safety Eric Reid still seems likely to sign elsewhere at some point. The 49ers have used three first-round picks on defensive linemen in the last few years (Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas), but their pass rush was still fairly limp last season as well. And after losing Patrick Willis and Chris Borland to retirement, Na'Vorro Bowman to injuries and free agency, and possibly Reuben Foster to suspension or release, they could definitely use some help at linebacker.
In other words, the 49ers have a need for an impact defender at any of the three levels. When building our big board for the team, that was our thought process. That said, there is an offensive prospect who, if he somehow fell to No. 9, would be a perfect pick for Kyle Shanahan's offense.
The Dream Targets
Chubb is the best defensive player in this draft. Some argue he's even better than last year's No. 1 overall pick, Myles Garrett. Adding him to the Armstead-Buckner-Thomas defensive front would give the 49ers a lot of options and a lot of upside. There are two universally acknowledged ways to improve a pass defense: add talent in the secondary and add pass-rushers. You could do a lot worse than throwing Chubb into the mix. If he made it all the way to No. 9, the 49ers would practically rush to the podium with his name on a card.
The same is true of Nelson. Even after signing Richburg, the 49ers could still use high-level talent on the interior of the offensive line. Nelson is practically a perfect guard prospect, and even though he's not necessarily the prototypical nimble athlete that works best in Shanahan's run game, the way he demolishes defensive linemen would make up for it. Protecting Garoppolo is the most important thing the 49ers can do for their future, and Nelson would be a solid investment on that front as well.
Smith's 2017 season at Georgia was, in a word, ridiculous. He posted 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, and both of those numbers actually feel low if you watched him play. He posted very good (if not necessarily elite) athletic testing numbers at the combine, ranking in the 68th percentile for linebackers. Smith plays even faster than his timed speed (4.51 seconds in the 40-yard dash), making plays from sideline-to-sideline against both the run and the pass. If you are looking for an all-field talent to plug and play on the second level of your defense, this is the man to get. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is a former linebackers coach and would undoubtedly love to work with a talent like Smith, figuring out creative ways to put him in position to succeed.
Yes, the 49ers have a young safety tandem they seem to like. No, neither of them is as good a player as James. (And neither of them is yet signed long-term.) With teams now using three safeties on a lot of snaps anyway, there is still plenty of room in this defensive backfield for James, whose bet asset is his versatility anyway. He can play up high. He can play in the box. He can play in the slot. He can cover tight ends. He's a superior athlete. He's a great tackler. He's a potentially transformative player on defense; and if you can get that at No. 9, you take it.
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB/S, Alabama
Fitzpatrick is more of a pure corner than James, but he also has the versatility to play safety. The 49ers have a pretty good slot corner in K'Waun Williams but Fitzpatrick would be a much better player for them because of his ability to move around the formation. Fitzpatrick is also a high-level playmaker, posting 5.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss, nine interceptions, two pick-sixes, two forced fumbles, and 24 passes defensed during his three seasons at Alabama. You don't pass on a player like that because you have K'Waun Williams signed for a couple more years on a cheap deal.
Edmunds is taller, heavier, longer, and slightly more athletic than Smith. He even has better sack and tackle-for-loss numbers, with 10 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss over his final two seasons at Virginia Tech. He doesn't seem to cover quite as much of the field as Smith (Smith is just a bit more instinctual, helping him make up for some of the natural advantages Edmunds has over him), so he checks in here as the second linebacker on the list for the Niners. Still, he would be a wonderful fit for the San Francisco defense.
Ward is a prototype outside corner and could slot in across from Richard Sherman right from the start, but he sits behind the two linebackers, James, and Fitzpatrick due to his (relative) lack of flexibility compared to those four players. He's a little bit short and slight at 5-10, 183 pounds, but he is an incredible athlete (first among all corners in SPARQ, ranking in the 99th percentile at the position) with great turn-and-run ability and elite speed to make up for the relative lack of size. Ohio State corners pretty much all do well fighting for position at the line of scrimmage, which bodes well for Ward's ability to translate as a press corner as well.
If Chubb, as expected, is off the board before No. 9, there are worse options than picking up one of the next two edge defenders. Davenport (ninth) and Landry (fourth) both posted elite SPARQ numbers at the combine. Davenport sits ahead of Landry on this board because he followed up his excellent junior season at UTSA (6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss) with an even better senior campaign (8.5 and 17.5), whereas Landry struggled with injuries as a senior and saw his numbers take a dip. Landry tested out as a slightly better athlete (87th percentile compared to 80th for Davenport) but Davenport has an advantage in size (6-6, 264 compared to 6-2, 252), length, and quickness, making him a better fit as a pure edge defender.
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