The San Francisco 49ers are fairly well off at every position, meaning their draft strategy this year can look at long-term needs, rather than simply try to patch holes.
One position that might need some work in the next few years is at defensive end. While the team is perfectly set up for 2014, the line isn’t without question marks entering the next few seasons:
|Defensive Ends Under Contract|
|Tank Carradine||25||2017||Entirely untested; recovering from injury|
|Lawrence Okoye||22||2016||No actual football experience|
|Mike Purcell||22||2016||Practice squad player|
|Tony Jerod-Eddie||24||2015||Depth player, not a real starting candidate|
Eventually, Justin Smith will age and retire. His heir apparent on the roster is Tank Carradine, who was drafted in the second round last year. However, Carradine missed all of last year with an ACL tear, and there’s always the chance he could fail to pan out. He’s an unknown.
It might make sense, then, for the 49ers to use a second- or third-day pick on another defensive end to shore up the depth on the roster.
They wouldn’t want to draft someone too high, unless a highly touted player like Kony Ealy dropped 10 to 15 slots. What the team is looking for is a solid prospect, not someone it needs to start right away.
With that in mind, here are three players, likely available in later rounds, the 49ers could target.
Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas
Projected third-round selection
The 49ers have shown a willingness to gamble on players with injury histories before. Just last year, they took both Carradine and Marcus Lattimore, despite them actively rehabbing injuries.
With that in mind, they might be willing to take a shot at Jackson Jeffcoat. He’s healthy now but has had some injury problems in college. In 2012, he ruptured his right pectoral muscle and ended up missing the rest of the season.
The injuries hide the fact that Jeffcoat’s one of the more interesting prospects in this year’s draft class. He has great hands, allowing him to fight through blocks, with quick feet and enough speed and agility to close quickly on quarterbacks.
He has experience both playing on the defensive line and standing up as a linebacker, giving him a bit of versatility, as well. It paid off in 2013, as Jeffcoat won the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award, after leading Texas in tackles and sacks.
He’s not a perfect fit for the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme, at least not on the defensive line. That doesn’t mean there’s no interest; the team had a scout on hand for Texas’ pro day. At only 247 pounds, he’s a bit light for the NFL, but has a great motor and constant effort.
Chris Smith, Arkansas
Projected third/fourth-round selection
Chris Smith is a short and stout prospect, with above-average lateral quickness and a great reach, with 34-inch arms. Like Jeffcoat, he has experience playing both standing up and with his hand on the ground, making him a versatile prospect.
My favorite thing about Smith is his first step. He’s not the fastest guy out there, with only a 4.71 40-yard dash, but he’s got the agility to get into his full gear quickly, able to rush around tackles. That’s more important than a 40-yard time; if your defensive end is running 40 yards, something has gone wrong anyway.
Smith’s ready to be a pass-rusher from day one in the NFL. The 49ers could either use him as an outside linebacker, or move him onto the line in pass-rushing situations. No matter what scheme he ends up in, Smith could contribute right away.
Taylor Hart, Oregon
Projected fifth/sixth-round selection
Both Smith and Jeffcoat project as tweeners—linebackers in a 3-4 scheme, and linemen in a 4-3 scheme. If the 49ers simply want someone to be stuck in their 3-4 scheme, then Taylor Hart would be a very interesting selection on the third day of the draft.
At 6’6”, 281 pounds, Hart is a tall, imposing player with excellent reach. He’s not a pass-rusher, but he can anchor the edge, allowing someone like Aldon Smith to come in behind him. He’s built to be a 5-technique lineman and is ready to contribute on the edge of a 3-4 front.
Hart could stand to add some more bulk to his frame, hence why some people have him dropping to the third day of the draft. His frame does look like he could add some extra weight, however, so that’s not a huge concern.
He impressed scouts at Oregon’s pro day, and the 49ers met with him individually afterward. With Justin Smith and Ray McDonald still entrenched as starters, Hart would have time to build up to NFL size and technique. He may never develop into an all-down end, but late on Day 3, he’s worth taking a flier on.