San Francisco has been quite the story this off season with an out of nowhere hiring of FOX announcer John Lynch as General Manager (without any prior experience) and then hiring Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan as head coach. With the offense in Shanahan’s hands he chose Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker coach Robert Saleh as their new defensive coordinator announcing the 49ers will be transitioning to the 4-3 defense.
Being a first time coordinator is daunting enough, but Saleh inherits a defensive front that was drafted specifically to the 3-4 and will have some unique challenges ahead of him. What may help Saleh is the 4-3 Under that he’s learned under Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley can look at times like a 3-4 defense which should help in the transition.
San Francisco has a few quality defensive pieces but they are going to need a major infusion of talent to really make this defense one an elite unit like it was under Jim Harbaugh. Here is a look at how the current 49ers players could fit into this new defense.
How does this affect the Defensive Line
Here is where the 49ers will have their toughest fits trying to find the right spots for both DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead who both stand 6’7 and 290lbs and were drafted to be 3-4 defensive ends playing lining up against tackles. In the new 49ers defense the base defensive end plays a similar 5 technique but the big issues is there in only one spot. That means one of them may have to move inside to the 3 technique which isn’t ideal for either of them as guards can really give them fits by getting underneath their large frames creating leverage. Saleh will have to get creative moving both players around flipping them from 5 tech to 3 tech frequently and could even line up one of them at the Leo position on 1st or 2nd downs.
Outside of the Oregon twin towers the 49ers could will need to fill the nose tackle who shades the center and also the weakside (Leo) defensive end. Glen Dorsey has played the nose tackle before and would fill that same role here but he’s a free agent. Mike Purcell could also be an option if they don’t fill the position in free agency or the draft.
At the Leo spot the front runner is likely outside linebacker Aaron Lynch how has shown the ability to get after the quarterback in the past but struggled more recently. But outside of Lynch their really isn’t a player on the roster that fits this role. Quinton Dial has talent but is in the same mold of Armstead and Buckner. Ronald Blair was an explosive interior pass rusher in college and could get some looks at the 3 technique, but at 269lbs he isn’t going to hold up on a regular basis.
With so many players that are so similar there is no sense in keeping them all and I wouldn’t be shocked to see one or two of them traded off this off-season for another player at a position of need or more draft capital.
How does this affect the Linebackers
While the defensive line looks like fitting square pegs in round holes the linebacking core seems tailor fit for this defense. Navorro Bowman is coming off an Achilles injury but when he’s healthy he is one of the best linebackers in the league. Bowman if healthy can play either the weakside or middle linebacker spot which gives the defense more flexibility.
Free agent Gerald Hodges played well for the most part last year and likely is brought back as a short term solution at weakside linebacker. San Francisco would be wise to use one of their early draft picks at finding their next top linebacker.
The strongside linebacker is often lined up on the line over the tight end providing run support early while in most cases move down to a defensive role on pass rushing situations. The 49ers have pieces that seem to fit in Eli Harold and Ahmad Brooks but neither played well last year. They’ll fit, but they need to be upgraded.
How does this affect the Secondary
The main coverage principle of this defense is to run the Cover 3 with a single high free safety and a strong safety playing underneath. San Francisco’s secondary bar far houses their most talent on the team, but is not without it’s flaws. The safety trio of Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea and Jaquiski Tartt are all above average players but seem to fit the strong safety role in this defense. While they lack the centerfield free safety that normally has success in this defense, with other areas being in need they could decide to move Jimmie Ward to free safety or just roll with these three to make it work.
At cornerback both Tramaine Brock has played well and Ward has played average, but neither is going to be confused for Richard Sherman or even Jalen Ramsey. Ward seems better suited for the nickle or safety which means finding a new outside corner is an absolute must.
Who are some defensive prospects they could target early
1st Round (2nd Overall)
Marshon Lattimore CB Ohio State
While it’s a deep cornerback class, Lattimore is by far the best corner in this class and has the size, speed, and ball skills to thrive as a press corner.
Malik Hooker S Ohio State
San Francisco lacks that playmaker back at free safety and Hooker would give them someone to complement the talent they have at strong safety.
Ruben Foster LB Alabama
Normally off the ball linebackers don’t go number two overall, but with John Lynch adding a toughness and physicality grade that screams Foster. Foster can also play either weakside or inside and could carry on the tradition of elite linebackers.
2nd Round (34th Overall)
Marcus Williams S Utah
If the 49ers miss out on Hooker in the first round they could target Williams here in the second who may be the second best coverage safety in this class.
Davon Godchaux DT LSU
Godchaux was miscast as a two gapping defensive end but thrived previously as a 3 technique penetrater.
Tim Williams OLB Alabama
Some off the field baggage could have Williams slip to the second round which would be a cue for the 49ers who desperately need some pass rush off the edge.
Daeshon Hall DE Texas A&M
With a combination of size and straightline speed he would fit well as the Leo defensive end one the weakside where he would be able to go and attack the up the field.
Marlon Humphrey CB Alabama
Humphrey has his struggles giving up plays downfield, but he is at his best when playing press coverage and allowed to be physical.
3rd Round (66th Overall)
Larry Ogunjobi DT Charlotte
Why not have this explosive Charlotte 49er defensive tackle transition to the San Francisco 49ers.
Elijah Lee LB Kansas State
Atlanta found success with a fast fly to the ball linebacker in Deion Jones while Lee may be able to do the same with the 49ers.
Rasul Douglas CB West Virginia
Douglas has some warts, but he’s much better playing as a true press corner utilizing his size and length and hiding his lack of change of direction.
Xavier Woods S Louisiana Tech
With three adequate safeties already on the roster the 49ers could chose to wait and bank on a deep safety class having a gem waiting around later in the draft to scoop up. That gem could be Woods who has playing making ability reading the quarterback and flying to the ball.