Finding a Winning Edge: 5 Pass Rushers Who Should be on the 49ers' Radar
The 49ers cannot really afford to ignore any position in the 2017 NFL Draft. This is a team who last season had one of the worst rosters in football, and it is a squad still in need of improvement despite the slew of free-agent additions.
But one area in which San Francisco is perhaps in most need of help is at edge rusher.
Simply put, the 49ers have been woeful rushing the passer over the last two seasons, recording just 61 sacks in that period.
While DeForest Buckner contributed as a pass rusher with six sacks in his rookie year, there was precious little production from others on the defense beyond Ahmad Brooks - who had 6.5 sacks.
Brooks is getting towards the end of his career, Aaron Lynch's development has stalled and the 49ers have gotten nothing from the likes of Tank Carradine and Eli Harold.
Therefore the 49ers need to put finding edge rushers high on their priority list, but the problem they have is that none - beyond likely top overall pick Myles Garrett - are worth taking with the second overall pick.
Of course the 49ers could trade down but here are five edge rushers who have a strong chance of going outside the first round who should be on the Niners' radar.
As always with players who come from the FCS, there are going to be questions about the level of competition prospects faced in their career.
But that did not stop Carson Wentz from going second overall last year and it has not stopped the stock of Youngstown State's Derek Rivers from rising.
And, regardless of what you think about the level of play in the FCS, there is no denying the ability of a player who 19.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in 2016.
He boasts an extremely impressive first step and can bound around the edge while using his quickness to work his way back to the inside shoulder of pass protectors.
Rivers has little problem turning his speed into power and driving blockers backwards and, with a relentless motor and strong hands that he uses to work his way to the outside shoulder of linemen and disengage in the run game, he has the skillset to be a difference maker at the next level.
It is not difficult to see the appeal behind Kansas State's Jordan Willis.
At 6'4" and 255 pounds with a 4.53 40 time under his belt, Willis is more than just an athletic freak who impressed in testing, he is an extremely productive football player whose physical traits translate to the football field.
Though he is a bit more of a straight-line athlete than Rivers, what he lacks in bend he makes up for with a lightning fast get off and excellent hand usage.
Willis has rip, swim and spin moves at his disposal and, when he is unable to get home to the quarterback, he has there wherewithal to crowd the throwing lane and bat passes down.
He could still use a counter move to work back to the inside of tackles and had some difficulty against down blocks in the run game but, even taking those deficiencies into account, it is tough not to fall in love with a player who put up 19.5 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss in his last two seasons.
Not all great athletes find a home in the NFL, but Willis has enough complexity to his game to stick in the pros for a long time.
The only edge rusher to rank above Willis in Zach Whitman's SPARQ metric was Houston's Tyus Bowser.
Bowser has the explosive first step and the bend, but he also plays with an evident aggression and willingness to fight through contact to get to the quarterback.
Slender enough to get through small gaps in the offensive line and boasting a rip move, Bowser makes for an imposing presence off the edge, yet it is his versatility that should most attract the 49ers to him.
Bowser's athleticism shows up in pursuit, allowing him to be a force against the run due to his ability to change direction quickly and close to the ball-carrier in a hurry.
Those same athletic traits make Bowser more than capable of holding up in coverage, where he can matchup with tight ends as well as running backs out of the backfield.
While he still needs some refinement as a pass rusher - he does not have a counter-rush move and can occasionally be bullied by offensive linemen due to his thinner frame - the versatility Bowser has shown in college could allow him to project well as an off-ball linebacker as well as a pass rusher.
The 49ers have been robbed of athleticism at linebacker through Patrick Willis' retirement and NaVorro Bowman's injuries. Bowser would give them it in spades.
Undersized at 5'11 and 241 pounds, there will be legitimate concerns as to whether Ejuan Price can survive up front at the NFL level, but his production in college suggests the transition may not be a difficult one for him.
Price had 24.5 sacks and 42.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons with Pitt, owing not only to a quick first step and bend, but also to some clever fakes at the line, which proved a useful extra trick at his disposal enabling him to fool pass protectors.
The power in his hands allowed Price to dominate whenever he was matched up against tight ends and if opposing teams feel comfortable not putting a lineman on him in the pros, the results will likely be the same.
Still, with his size and a poor Combine in terms of testing, some teams may be put off by Price, particularly given his lack of a counter move and his willingness to ride on blocks.
Yet if the 49ers are in a position to get Price on day three, they should not hesitate to grab a player who has
a history of living in the backfield.
TCU's Josh Carraway has flown under the radar during the draft process, but is another potential day-three pickup who could turn out to be something of a hidden gem.
Carraway's Combine numbers - which featured a 4.74 40-yard dash - were not eye-catching and, in comparison to some of the other edge rushers in the class, neither were his collegiate stats.
He had 21.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in his last two seasons but, with the versatility to play on both three and four-man defensive lines and as an outside linebacker, Carraway - who has shown the capability to cover running backs out of the backfield - should be able to find a home.
In addition to demonstrating athleticism that did not show up at the Combine and boasting dip, bend and change-of-direction quickness, Carraway showcases impressive closing speed and holds up well in the run game, disengaging consistently while competing effectively against down and angle blocks.
Converting speed to power is an issue Carraway will need to work on at the next level, and he has also shown a tendency to be widened out of his run fits and miss tackles in the open field.
But Carraway is more impactful than he has received credit for. He can influence a number of areas of the game and the 49ers would be wise to have tabs on a defender who is one of the sleepers of the class.