The San Francisco 49ers have the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft this April. Red-and-gold fans everywhere have already voiced opinions on how they should spend this selection, but no one knows for sure who will be available or how they will pick.
Luckily, there is plenty of talent at the top of the draft to make a number of players (at positions of need) worthy selections.
Naturally, given the need for a franchise passer, plenty of fans are clamoring for the 49ers first selection to be a top-ranked quarterback. Drafting a passer who will sit on the bench for a year or so while paying him top-ten money, however, isn't the most thought-out move.
The top of the 2010 draft is littered with talent to help the 49ers in another area in which they have severely lacked over the last decade: pass defense.
Of these top seven players that can help the 49ers pass defense, at least one is guaranteed to be available when the seventh pick is on the clock.
Scouting assessments from Rob Rang, and CBSSports.com.
A probable top-five pick and possible first-overall selection, Bowers is explosive, powerful, smart, aggressive and pretty much pro-ready.
"Pass rush: Combines explosion out of his stance and pure upper-body strength to overwhelm most college right tackles. Senses bootlegs to his side of the field, keeps outside leverage and sheds -- or gets a hand on a receiver to slow him up -- before chasing down the quarterback. Gets his hands into passing lanes when stalemated at the line, with a great vertical and the length to block passes at the line. Lines up on either side of the line. Does not have an elite first step as an edge rusher, relies on bull rushes and poor footwork by college tackles to turn the corner. When lined up wide, he can get inside lane with his hands and is tough to stop once in his man's jersey. Better tackles can stand him up as the game progresses. Too often, he is late coming off the snap.
Run defense: Ready-made strong-side NFL defensive end because of his strength as a run-stopper. Uses thick upper body, quickness and awareness, and leverage to keep containment on the edge, and sheds most tackles easily. Stays square to the line of scrimmage and shows good awareness throughout the play. Competes, chasing to either sideline, even after losing his balance. Takes on multiple blockers, (tackles, pulling guards and fullbacks) as they come with violent hands so he can hold his ground. Generally stays alive against cut blocks, but loses his balance regularly and needs to use his hands better to defeat.
Explosion: Has explosive strength on the edge, bringing his full force in his hand punch to the chest of overmanned college tackles on bull rushes and when shedding blocks. Flashes the ability to come hard off the snap and turn the corner as a pass rusher on the strong side, but may struggle to do so against NFL right tackles without improving technique.
Strength: Already looks like an NFL end, pushing some tackles into the backfield with one arm, and will only grow stronger over the next couple of years in a pro strength and conditioning program. More developed in the upper body than the lower body, but plays with excellent leverage against bigger linemen. Strong hands to shed on the outside.
Tackling: Combines NFL-quality strength and length to provide explosive tackling on the edge. Most ball carriers find it difficult to evade him once in his grasp. Closing speed and strong wrap give him the capability of forcing fumbles on sacks or against ball carriers in the open field. Changes direction well for his size and is able to keep himself in outside runs to force a decision. NFL backs won't go down as easily as college backs do when he gets one hand on them, however.
Intangibles: Matured and turned on his game after losing his mentor, former DE Gaines Adams (cardiac arrest) and his father (seizure) over the past year. Lost 20 pounds between junior and senior seasons. His best football is ahead of him. Has become a student of the game."
While Bowers is not at all likely to be available at the seventh pick, the fact that a team will draft him earlier means that at least one of six other talents will be available.
While many fans fixate on outside pass rushers, they should not forget about the players capable of making plays at the interior line.
Rob Rang said of Fairley (Via CBSSports.com):
"Pass rush: Explosive initial burst off the snap. Good flexibility and balance to "get skinny" and penetrate gaps. Uses his hands well to slap away blockers' attempts to get their hands on him. Possesses a rare combination of long arms and quick feet, helping him avoid cut blocks. Good swim move. Locates the ball quickly and has the lateral agility to redirect. Good short-area closing burst. Good effort in pursuit. Surprising speed for a man of his size.
Run defense: Relies on his quickness to penetrate gaps and make plays behind the line of scrimmage more than his strength to hold up at the point of attack. Long, relatively thin limbed for the position and can be knocked off the ball due to his lack of an ideal anchor. Good flexibility to twist through double-teams. Locates the ball quickly and pursues well laterally.
Explosion: Quick burst to penetrate gaps. Can shock his opponent with his quickness, strong initial punch and quick hands to disengage. Has an explosive burst to close when he sees a playmaking opportunity and can make the eye-popping collision without needing much space to gather momentum.
Strength: Good, but not elite strength, especially in his lower body. Has a tendency to come up at the snap and can be pushed back because of it. Possesses very good natural strength, however, including in his core as he can twist through double teams. Very good hand strength to rip through blocks. Good strength for the pull-down and trip-up tackle.
Tackling: Possesses a good closing burst and brings his hips to supply the big hit. Good strength for the drag tackle. Willing to lay out and has good hand-eye coordination to trip up the ballcarrier running away from him.
Intangibles: Former high school basketball player who shows surprisingly quick feet. An ascending talent, but is nonetheless labeled as a player with some true bust potential, as there are concerns about his work ethic. Carries a little bit of extra weight around his middle and is more "country" strong than weight-room defined. Has developed a reputation as a dirty player; repeatedly flagged in 2010 for late hits and there have been instances when he has speared ballcarriers with his helmet, banged into their lower legs purposely and pushed off downed players to lift himself up. One of nine siblings."
Fairley is not out of the question, though he will likely be another top-five pick, which means one of five other defensive studs will be available.
Peterson is one of this year's freaks and should probably go as the top corner in the draft. The 49ers have not had an elite secondary since 1994, and it's no secret they could use some help there.
Peterson was even a Heisman candidate, and although the NCAA's most prestigious prize has seemed a curse for quarterbacks and running backs, just being considered for the trophy has been a Midas touch for defenders like Warren Sapp, Charles Woodson, and Ndamukong Suh. So far anyway. Peterson came away with roughly 12 percent of the vote.
Rob Rang of CBSSports.com says of Peterson:
"Read & React: Possesses good instincts for the position. Reads his man and will sneak a peek at the quarterback, showing the anticipation necessary to make the big play. Can get over-aggressive and bite on double-moves, though he shows good straight-line speed to recover and possesses excellent ball skills. Could come up more aggressively when he reads run, as he's content with allowing teammates to make the tackle, but isn't afraid to come up in run support when he has to.
Man Coverage: Rare fluidity and straight-line speed for a defender of his size. Quick feet and balance when backpedaling and when he switches to a side shuffle technique. Rarely uses his hands to jam the receiver, opting instead simply to turn and run with his opponent. Will occasionally misjudge the speed of his opponent when in off-man coverage, allowing the receiver to eat up too much of the cushion. Easily flips his hips and shows very good burst out of his breaks (especially considering his size) to mirror the receiver. Good acceleration and has a burst to close. Good route-recognition. Good body lean and use of the sideline to ride wideouts out of bounds. Excellent size, overall physicality and competitiveness for jump-ball situations. Times his leaps well and can high-point the ball due to excellent hand-eye coordination.
Zone Coverage: Good recognition for zone coverage, but will drift out of position when he's reading the eyes of quarterbacks, resulting in some big-play interceptions, but also in allowing receptions when savvy passers bait him. Quick feet and balance to change directions. Good route anticipation. Switches off his target quickly when he sees the quarterback throwing elsewhere. Closes on the ball quickly.
Closing/Recovery: Some concern over what his time in the 40-yard dash will be, but shows very good field speed and possesses a second gear of acceleration to close on the ball. Locates the ball quickly and has the long arms to break up passes (or even make the interception) when it appears that he is beaten. Has good, but not elite burst to break downhill out of his cuts, making him susceptible to comeback routes against bigger receivers who challenge him vertically (see Alabama, Texas A&M). Among best attributes is his size, leaping ability and ball skills on fade and go-routes against bigger receivers. Matches up well in jump-ball situations. Isn't afraid to get physical in these confrontations, but because he's going for the ball, doesn't draw the flag. Very good ball skills. Times his leap well, showing a good vertical and possesses the long arms and soft, strong hands to pluck the ball out of the air. Excellent return skills once he has the ball in his hands.
Run Support: When not in press coverage, reads run quickly and either provides the contain to push the runner back inside or makes the tackle himself. Focuses on his primary target - the receiver - when he's in press coverage and can be a step slower to recognize run. Trusts his teammates to make the play, showing good strength and toughness to fight through blocks, but not always the sense of urgency scouts would prefer. Good effort in pursuit. Takes good angles to the ball and has the speed to run down the ballcarrier.
Tackling: Reliable open-field tackler. Breaks down well in space to make the stop against elusive athletes. Willing to take on the bigger ballcarrier and does a nice of wrapping his arms securely around the legs to make the effective stop. Good effort in pursuit. Not an explosive hitter, but plays his size, strength and long arms help him knock down ballcarriers quickly.
Intangibles: Confident, almost cocky demeanor on the field. Possesses the short memory of all great cornerbacks. Extremely competitive. Seems to relish the battles against top receivers in man coverage. Campaigned to be used on special teams and even offense while at LSU due to his natural playmaking skills. Good bloodlines. Cousins of NFL cornerback Bryant McFadden and wide receivers Santana and Sinorice Moss. Characterized as "freak" athlete."
If Peterson falls to the 49ers, terrific! If (as is suspected) another team snags him before then, there will still be at least four tremendous defenders to choose from.
Tackles—offensive and defensive—fly off the board in the first round. The pass-rushing defensive linemen specifically are in very high demand these days. Marcell Dareus has excelled at the position for a couple years in the SEC already, and is undoubtedly ready to harass backfields at the NFL level.
And Dareus is not afraid to make a big play in a big game.
And if Darius is not available, one of three more premium defenders will be.
Rob Rang (CBSSports.com) on Darius:
"Pass rush: Good initial quickness off the snap. Doesn't possess the burst upfield to cross the tackle's face and turn the corner. Quick enough, however, to split the gap and collapse the pocket from the interior. Explosive hands to disengage from blocks. Needs a clear lane to close, but shows a late burst toward the ball when he has it. Flashes some legitimate pass-rush technique, including a swim move and good inside rip. Possesses surprising lateral agility and balance to track down elusive quarterbacks.
Run defense: Stout at the point of attack. Plays with good leverage and can anchor to create a pile. Cognizant defender who works hard to keep containment. Good lateral agility and balance to slide while fighting blockers. Long arms and good strength to lock-out. Explosive hands to disengage. Won't shed the block until he reads where the ballcarrier is going. Good effort laterally and downfield in pursuit. Surprising speed for a man his size.
Explosion: Can provide an explosive initial punch to jar the offensive lineman back onto his heels. Powerful and quick hands to shed blocks. Flashes some explosiveness as a hitter, needing little momentum to rock the ballcarrier.
Strength: Thick lower body, which helps him anchor well against the run. Powerful bull rusher with good hand strength to disengage quickly. Good upper-body strength to pull down ballcarriers while occupied with a blocker.
Tackling: Shows surprising lateral agility and balance to break down against elusive athletes. Isn't always capable of making the tackle in the open field himself, but often does a good enough job of forcing elusive ballcarriers to dance in an effort to elude him that secondary defenders are able to get there and help make the play. Good strength for the pull down tackle inside. Good effort laterally and downfield in pursuit. Will lay out for the diving tackle, showing good hand-eye coordination to trip up the ballcarrier. Flashes some explosiveness as a hitter.
Intangibles: Suspended by the NCAA for the first two games of the 2010 season when it was discovered that he'd accepted inappropriate benefits from an agent. Endured a troubled childhood. Father died when Dareus was six, leaving mother to support six children. Dareus has lived with others throughout much of his life, including an assistant coach in high school and a sponsor family while in college."
Von Miller is simply the best option at outside linebacker in this year's draft. In 2009, Miller led the nation with 17 sacks and made 21.5 of his 48 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
An ankle injury slowed Miller at the beginning of the 2010 season, but he was nonetheless able to fight through it and finished strong with 68 tackles, 17.5 of which dropped opponents in the backfield, and registered 10.5 sacks.
"Read & React: Overall instincts for the position, particularly containment and run responsibility and reaction, are questionable since he is primarily used in a "sic 'em" role. Still getting a feel for coverage but reacts quickly when the ball is thrown to the flat. Good feel for pass rush. He sniffs out indecision in the passer and senses weakness in an offensive tackle. Knows when to go for the ball or big hit on to create turnovers.
Run defense: Improving against the run, but must be more consistent to become an elite all-around player. Plays with more strength than expected; is adequate grounding his hold on the move when engaged but does lose his balance. Willing to lower his shoulder against pulling guards to fill inside gaps. Teams take advantage of his continual edge rushing to get a running lane outside. Overruns plays with aggressive angles and a lack of focus on the ball. Crashes down on plays if he senses an inside run, but lacks the explosive punch to knock back fullback or tackle blocks. Inconsistent chaser on the back side, could increase his tackle production with more effort.
Pass defense: Could excel in this part of the game because of his fluidity and quickness, but is still raw in coverage. Mirrors running backs and tight ends off the line into the flat and downfield. Athletic enough to drop deep, keeps one eye on the running back and the other on the quarterback. Is not aware of receivers behind him. Needs to get his hands up to clog passing lanes more consistently when unable to reach the passer. Must improve his hands for the interception.
Tackling: Strong upper body and closing speed make him an explosive tackler who is tough to elude in the backfield. Loads up on ballcarriers -- sometimes even leaving his feet -- to force fumbles. Chase effort is mixed; will stop four or five steps from a play if he thinks his teammate will take care of the play instead of adding himself to the pile. Makes a number of shoe-string tackles when facing elusive runners, gives full effort to bring the man down. Doesn't disengage often enough to make tackles against the run but will crash down to close a gap.
Pass Rush/Blitz: Greatest area of strength of this stand-up defensive end. Extremely quick around the corner. Gets skinny to penetrate when shooting the inside gap. Elite closing speed to the quarterback, explodes to drive them into the ground or uses his length to wrap up even the most mobile passers. Dips shoulder to get under the pads of taller tackles, shortening the pocket. Feels cut blocks and uses his hands and quickness to beat them. Good arm-over, spin and outside-in change-up moves to get his man off-balance after turning the corner on previous plays. Average strength and hand usage to free himself after initial contact. Might push man off-balance once getting him moving up the field, but too often stopped after his first move when facing opponents with good lateral movement. Capable of leveraging tackles back into the pocket, but lacks great length or bulk to take on massive NFL tackles.
Intangibles: Maturing as a leader and person throughout his career at A&M. Has no major character or off-field issues. Given one of three team Weightlifter of the Year awards in April 2010. Sprained right ankle hampered him early in 2010, limiting the explosion around which his game is keyed."
And if Miller is not available, there are still two more defender worthy of the seventh overall pick.
Prince Amukamara has been the shut-down corner behind the Huskers' Black Shirts defense for the last few years. Now it's his time to leap to the pros, as Ndamukong Suh did last year. If Peterson is gone, Amukamara is without a doubt the best option at cornerback.
"Read & React: Strong instincts with very quick reactions. Reads the quarterback's eyes and anticipates routes, closing quickly to jump underneath routes. Gets into the flat in a hurry to attack screen plays and outside runs. Inconsistent biting on double moves and pump fakes, will get overly aggressive during the course of a game and give up the deep ball.
Man Coverage: Perfect NFL press-cover corner with his combination of size, strength and speed. Is patient in man coverage, reading the receiver's move and reacting quickly. Quick feet and smooth hips to turn and run, maintains contact with most any receiver down the sideline. Closes well when playing off the line, attacks midsection and wraps to tackle. Capable of playing very physically, especially in the five-yard area. Has the lateral movement to shadow jerk routes. Maintains cushion in his backpedal.
Zone Coverage: Owns the prototypical man-press build but has the closing speed and physicality to excel in zone coverage. Excellent anticipation of underneath throws, cuts under receivers to make a play on the ball with exceptional hand-eye coordination. Comes off deep routes to support shorter patterns to his side. Secure tackler who rarely gives up yards after the catch. Has dropped interceptions not thrown in his breadbasket. Fair foot speed in his backpedal, but needs to stay over his feet instead of leaning backward.
Closing/Recovery: Excellent closing speed for his size. Changes from pedal to forward motion quickly, plants hard and has a burst to the ball. Inconsistent recovery speed if frozen by double move, can get back into the play (and make a play on the ball) but quicker receivers seem to maintain separation.
Run Support: Has the size and aggressive nature to excel in run support. Willing cut tackler, gets into the thigh of the running back. Good strength to rip off receiver blocks, could be more consistent using his hands to disengage. Sticks his nose into piles and can stand up running backs coming with a head of steam.
Tackling: Excellent strength for the position, effective wrapping up receivers after the catch or cutting down backs in run support. Breaks down in space to avoid missed tackles. Will attack the shoulder pads of running backs to bring them down or force them out of bounds. Very effective cut tackler whether attacking the thighs of running backs or violently taking out the legs of receivers in the open field. Even when he does not bring down the ballcarrier, he gets enough to slow him down giving help time to arrive. Helps teammates finish off tackles in space. Could be more consistent getting off receiver blocks.
Intangibles: Spiritual man, involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Has matured greatly since arriving on campus, applying himself on the practice field and the film room more diligently since 2009. Parents are from Nigeria."
But no DB is perfect. Even Amukamara has been burned once or twice.
And if all six of these athletes are off the board, there is one more defender to remember.
Stephen Paea is not currently projected as a top 10 pick. This could certainly change after the combine, though. A good showing in the agility drills could go a very long way. His strength and muscular endurance are already without question.
Paea is not so likely to be a dominating pass rusher like Dareus or Fairley, but his stout run defense would free up other players to get into the backfield on blitzing schemes, and if nose-tackle Aubrayo Franklin and the 49ers can not come to an agreement, then Paea could turn out to be an excellent choice.
CBSSports.com says of Paea:
"Pass rush: Doesn't provide much in terms of a pass rush. Is able to split gaps due to his burst off the snap, but doesn't have quick feet or agility to chase down the quarterback. Relies on his bull rush to knock interior linemen into the pocket and flush the passer into the arms of teammates. Lacks the height and arm length required in consistently altering passing lanes.
Run defense: Is quick enough to surprise his opponent with a burst through the gap, but will make his NFL millions due to the fact that he is a natural run plugger due to his short, squatty build and rare upper- and lower-body strength. Can be knocked off the ball when double-teamed, but flashes the ability to split them and is rarely pushed far before he's able to plant his legs in the ground and create a pile. Doesn't have the lateral agility and balance to beat runners to the sideline, but hustles in pursuit.
Explosion: Fires off the snap low and hard, flashing a sudden burst that surprises opponents. Burst is short-lived and only extends to his ability to go straight up-field. With his strength and bowling ball-like frame, Paea can explode into the ball carrier if he gets a running start.
Strength: Ranks as one of the country's strongest players, reportedly boasting a 600-pound squat, 500-pound bench press and the ability to churn out 44 repetitions of 225 pounds. Is even stronger than his weight-room numbers indicate due to his natural leverage. Doesn't disengage from blockers as well as his strength would indicate due to the need to refine his hand technique and average lateral agility.
Tackling: Stays squared and low to knock down the ball carrier near the line of scrimmage. Flashes explosive hitting ability, with a proven ability to knock the ball free. Tied the OSU record with four forced fumbles in 2009. Good upper-body strength to drag down ball carriers as they attempt to go past him. Doesn't have the speed or change of direction to offer much in pursuit.
Intangibles: High-effort player was voted a team co-captain in 2009, in his second year in the program as a junior. Proved his toughness in 2008 by playing the final month of the regular season despite a painful bursa sac injury in his knee. Born in New Zealand, grew up in Tonga and dreamt of becoming a professional rugby player. Learned the English language after moving to the United States at age 16."
Paea is currently considered a stretch at the seventh pick, however, and could even be there for SF in the second round if things go the 49ers way. It may make sense at this point (if the top six athletes on this list are somehow gone) to take a strong offensive receiving threat like A.J. Green, or attempt to trade down and seek additional middle-round picks.
So the seventh overall pick is a very comfortable place for the 49ers to be. With the winds of change blowing fiercely through the organization this off-season, the initial reaction was that a quarterback had to be, without a doubt, the team's top priority in the draft.
But passing on one of these guys in favour of a "first-round passer" who will sit on the bench for a year or so just seems foolish.
Sure there are plenty of other viable defenders in later rounds. Robert Quinn, Marvin Austin, Jimmy Smith, Brendon Harris, Wayne Daniels, Cameron Heyward or possibly J.J. Watt could fall to the second round. The seventh pick in the draft, however, was earned by the franchise through a season of tortue, and eventually obliterated false hope.
The 49ers' healing process starts day one of the draft, and not a moment later.