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Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
You know the details by now. On Monday, the 49ers traded an elite, fan-favorite defensive tackle in DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the 13th overall pick. While Buckner will be deeply missed, this creates an interesting setup for how the 49ers will proceed.
The 49ers Need Defensive Line Depth
Prior to this trade, depth along the defensive line seemed like a luxury if everything else fell comfortably into place. That's no longer the case. With everyone on the interior rising one spot on the depth chart, a defensive line touted as being one of the best in the league will likely take a step back next season. With the limited cap space, look for the 49ers to address the issue in the draft, whether that be with their shiny new pick in the top of the first round or with a later pick.
The 49ers Are in Prime Position to Grab Shanahan's Julio Jones
There are three receivers (CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs) that are widely seen as the top of the class, and the 49ers will, in all likelihood, have the opportunity to draft one of them. Each one is a plus route runner, meaning that each one will have a spot in Kyle Shanahan's offense. However, each receiver has their own separate pros and cons that will make it an interesting decision if they have a choice of the three. This pick, if it is a receiver, will define how Shanahan views his offense going into the future.
Given the need for a defensive lineman, this week we are going to focus on the players in various areas of the draft that could be a fit in the new 49ers defensive line.
Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
6’5”, 318 pounds
Pros: Pretty much everything. Derrick Brown is the best defensive tackle in this class, and there’s not much he can’t do. He is long, fast, and has a motor that doesn’t quit. He can pass rush from the inside or the outside, and he can stuff the run against even the best guards. Brown is a very cerebral player; he knows exactly what he needs to do on every play to make the play a win for the defense. Brown is a complete weapon.
Cons: If you had to pick one thing he doesn’t have, it would be the Aaron Donald-like footwork and ability to change direction quickly. There’s a reason why that skill set has only been found in a player as small as Donald. If a player as big as Brown had that ability, he would be league-breaking. The biggest question mark really is if he will somehow fall all the way to 13.
Target Position: 13th overall pick
Javon Kinlaw, DT, South Carolina
6’5”, 315 pounds
Pros: This guy is a freak. He has the best combination of size, strength, and athleticism in this class. He is also the best penetrator in this class. Where Brown can do everything at a good-to-great level, Kinlaw is elite at rushing the passer.
Cons: His aggressiveness is also his downfall. On run plays, he is still in his “attack” mode to get into the backfield, leaving gaps for big gains for the rusher. If he can tone down the aggressiveness and begin processing plays as opposed to constantly being on the attack, he could save some of the energy that he seems to lack later games and become a more complete player. I’d rather tell a player to back off than tell him to be more aggressive.
Target Position: 13th overall pick
A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa
6’6”, 280 pounds
Pros: There is a chance that the 49ers try to transition Armstead into the role that Buckner had as a full-time defensive tackle. If that is the case, there is no player better situated to keep the 49ers defensive line running at full speed than A.J. Epenesa. Epenesa has length and power in abundance, coupling those with expert-level technique. Epenesa also has versatility due to that combination of talents. Epenesa can shut down the run on the outside as a base-down defensive end, and then move inside to completely dismantle guards. If you want to see this at full power, watch Epenesa in the final drive that Minnesota tried to put together in their game against Iowa this year. Epenesa played four snaps at defensive tackle and got in the backfield to either generate pressure or get a sack on each play. I could easily see a defensive line of Bosa-Armstead–Jones-Epenesa on running downs and Bosa-Armstead-Epenesa-Ford on passing downs.
Cons: Epenesa lacks the top-end athleticism that many love to see in a defensive end nowadays. His combine performance was not good, causing many to be worried about his ceiling. However, he would still fit perfectly with what the 49ers are doing. He does not have the bend for a true pass rush specialist from the outside.
Target Position: 31st overall pick
Ross Blalock, DT, TCU
6’4”, 305 pounds
Pros: At his peak, Blalock is a force. He has great quickness for a man his size, and uses that to penetrate into the backfield with regularity. He wants to punish whoever has the ball, and works his tail off to do just that on every play. He’s slippery in the way that, despite his larger size, linemen can’t seem to get clean hits on him to take him completely out of the play. If given enough time, he can work his way back into the fold, even if the initial punch takes him out briefly.
Cons: Notice how I said at his peak. The key to opening Blalock is consistency in his technique. He can get too high coming out of his stance, and his punch can get a little wide when attacking the linemen. Because of the high stance and varied technique in his initial attack, he can sometimes be stopped long enough to make him a non-factor in a play. A coach like Kocurek could do wonders for a player like Blalock.
Target Position: 31st overall pick
Raekwon Davis, DT, Alabama
6’7”, 312 pounds
Pros: How better to replace a 6’7”, 300-plus-pound stalwart than draft another 6’7”, 300-plus-pound behemoth on the defensive line? While he would be the potential replacement for Buckner, I see a lot of similarities to Armstead as a prospect. He has the prototypical athleticism for a modern defensive tackle, and the flashes he shows throughout his game all show that he has the potential to be a star lineman. If I knew that I was going to get the peak aspects of a player on every down, there may not be a player I want more than Davis.
Cons: Davis is very inconsistent, which is not a great trait for a senior with plenty of starting experience at a program like Alabama. The large range of outcomes you can get from him on any given play is concerning. When you have a player of his size, it is hard to maintain leverage, and the technique must be consistently strong to get the benefits of that length. Davis hasn’t gotten there yet, and with his background, there will be questions on whether he ever will.
Target Position: Trade back, middle of day two
Nick Coe, DE, Auburn
6’5”, 291 pounds
Pros: Coe is Epenesa-light. His best position may be as a 3-4 defensive end, but that is a skill set that translates to what the 49ers are trying to do. He can stuff the run from the outside on base downs, and can play the pass from the interior on passing downs. If Madden ratings were real life, Coe would be Epenesa but with every skill decreased by 5 to 7 points, a little shorter, and a little heavier.
Cons: The cons of Epenesa are still true here. He does not have good quickness, and has very little bend to attack the quarterback. He works best when able to go from point A to point B in a straight line, and any maneuvering around that can cause issues. He has a place in the league, but the ceiling is limited.
Target Position: Trade back, early day three
McTelvin Agim, DT, Arkansas
6’3”, 307 pounds
Pros: Agim was a defensive end throughout his entire football career until 2019, and you can see that in his play style. Agim wants to attack the gaps and cause disruption in the backfield. He wants to shed a blocker as quickly as possible, get through a gap, and make a play. Agim is the type of player you want on your defense to take on the mindset of Bobby Boucher: See ball, get by whoever is in your way, and get ball.
Cons: Agim was a defensive end throughout his entire football career until 2019, and you can see that in his play style. If you ask him to do anything other than attack the gaps, you must do so at your own risk. He doesn’t have the technique or strength at this point to stack an offensive lineman and plug a hole in the run game. His technique just isn’t even remotely there at this point. He may be able to develop it, but that’s a big “may”. The more likely scenario is that he turns into a third-down tackle that replaces a nose tackle in passing situations.
Target Position: Middle day three
Raequan Williams, DT, Michigan State
6’4”, 304 pounds
Pros: Williams is elite at the role of a run stuffing 3-tech defensive tackle. He can be taken out of a play with a double-team, but if you are looking for a player to hold his ground against a guard on early downs, Williams is your guy.
Cons: Man, if you could somehow combine Williams and Agim, you would have an elite defensive prospect. However, Williams just doesn’t seem to have the pass-rushing upside as the rest of these prospects. He has a high floor based on what he can do in the run game, but his ceiling is not much higher.
Target Position: Middle of day three
Tipa Galea'i, DE, Utah State
6’5”, 235 pounds
Pros: Galea’i is a very different type of player than the rest of the linemen on this list. Galea’i is a pure speed rusher who wants to bend around the outside and get to the quarterback. Galea’i is more like Dee Ford insurance as opposed to a DeForest Buckner replacement, but I love him for that role.
Cons: While Galea’i can rush the passer with speed from the outside, he shouldn’t be relied on to do much more. His game is predicated on linemen not getting a clean punch on him, but will be taken completely out of a play if a lineman is able to do so. He has trouble playing the run, as his desire to go around blocks will open up huge holes. He is a rotation player at best, and out of the league at worst if his athleticism is not enough for the pro level.
Target Position: Late day three pick
Joe Gaziano, DE, Northwestern
6’4”, 275 pounds
Pros: Gaziano has been one of the most productive, intelligent, and technically sound defensive ends in one of the nation’s best conferences. He has consistently gone against top-end talent and won the matchups against them. He can set the edge against the run, and his combination of length and technical prowess can assist him in shedding blocks. He is more of a straight-line rusher than a bendy pass rusher, meaning he works best rushing the passer over a guard (hmm) or out of a wide-nine defensive front (hmmmmmmm).
Cons: Gaziano is, for an NFL defensive end, unathletic at best (understanding he is still more athletic than 99.9 percent of the general population). Asking him to do anything other than what I listed above will have disastrous results. However, for a day three pick, or even an undrafted free agent, Gaziano could be a perfect replacement or rotation piece for this defense.
Target Position: Late day three pick or undrafted free agent
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