• Travis Rapp

Making the Case for a Defensive Lineman in the First Round of the NFL Draft

When the San Francisco 49ers surprisingly traded away a top-five defensive tackle in DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the 13th pick in the upcoming NFL draft there was an immediate storyline: the 49ers had essentially traded Buckner for DT Javon Kinlaw, who they would select with that pick. Many saw Kinlaw as a cheaper and younger version of Buckner, although with a raw skill set.

Now, a week away from the draft, Kinlaw has risen up the draft boards to land between the seventh and ninth spot, and could very well not be available to pick at the 13th spot. Instead of DT, many fans and pundits alike have switched the story line to drafting one of the top three wide receivers (Jerry Juedy, CeeDee Lamb, or Henry Ruggs III) at 13, leaving the 49ers without a fresh new replacement for Buckner’s spot.

To go along the storyline of drafting a WR, many people have pointed out that the defensive line is one of the team's strongest positions groups, still sporting four former first round picks (Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, and Dee Ford), and a wealth of recent mid to late round picks and journeyman in Ronald Blair III, Kevin Givens, DJ Jones, Kentavius Street, and Jullian Taylor. The thought is that a combination of Armstead, Thomas, Jones, and Street could and will make up for the loss of Buckner. A healthier Ford would allow Armstead to play inside more, along with Thomas, which is a better fit for his skill set than rushing off the edge. Street and Jones would fill in on the other downs.

There is another option here though. First, it is possible that if all four quarterbacks who are thought to be first-rounders (Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, and Jordan Love) go in the first twelve picks, or there is a big run on offensive tackles, or if all three of the above-mentioned WRs go in the first twelve picks, Kinlaw could drop into general manager John Lynch’s and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s laps. This is a possibility, but maybe not a probability.

The more likely option is that they use the 31st pick to draft Buckner’s replacement. The defensive tackle that is most often placed next to the 49ers logo in the mock drafts now is Ross Blacklock, a 6’3”, 305-pound 3-technique DT out of TCU. Blacklock has the physical abilities that the team covets, but is very raw in his pass rushing abilities. Blacklock could also be available if they traded out of the end of the first round into the beginning of the second round.

There are other options at DT that the team could look at, but Blacklock’s is a good fit for what Robert Saleh would want him to do next to All-Pro candidates Bosa and Ford. Now, Blacklock is not the next coming of Buckner and doesn’t have the arm length that Kinlaw possesses, but the depth along the line would allow the coaches to bring him along slowly, giving Thomas the opportunity to prove himself with Blacklock behind him as an insurance policy.

If Blacklock, who most have ranked as the third best defensive tackle in the draft, is not available at 31 or if they trade back and he isn’t there in the second round, another raw but athletic DT they may target is Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore. He is also a very strong and freakishly athletic DT whose speed and strength can really create problems for offensive lineman, but like Blacklock, his pass rushing technique are raw and would need some coaching up to make a big contribution to another Super Bowl run. Either Blacklock or Gallimore would not be immediate plug-and-play picks, but their abilities to beat interior lineman with athleticism while they learn the techniques needed for NFL-caliber defensive tackles to win on a consistent basis might be exactly what the 49ers are looking for.

The 49ers rotated their DL players religiously throughout the 2019 season, and having freakish athletes to throw in for a handful of plays while the starters catch their breath is never a bad thing. In a week everyone will see if the team believes that the combination of Armstead, Thomas, and Street is enough to fill the gigantic hole left by the Buckner trade, or if one of Kinlaw, Blacklock, or Gallimore will be drafted as the replacement.

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