With high draft pick, 49ers believe they can make defensive line pieces fit

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — From the looks of it, the San Francisco 49ers have three legitimate options when it comes to who they could take with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft.

Provided, of course, that they keep that pick, the players most likely to become Niners are Ohio State end Nick Bosa, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and Kentucky end/linebacker Josh Allen. One thing all three have in common other than that they’ve piqued San Francisco’s interest? All project to play at least some role up front (though Allen could also play some linebacker in the team’s defensive scheme).

While 49ers general manager John Lynch won’t quite go so far as to say those are the only three players the team is considering with the second pick, he does acknowledge that all of them are firmly in the mix to be bound for the Bay Area come April 25.

“Those guys are really good players who I think anybody would be interested in that’s picking high,” Lynch said. “So you’re right there, but I think we can’t just settle in on two, three guys and say these are our guys here. We’re looking at a ton of people right there and kind of figuring out, ‘If we’re here, that’s what we’re doing. If not, we got to prepare that we understand who are the guys we like that we think can make us a better football team.'”

If indeed the Niners stay at No. 2 and draft Bosa, Williams or Allen, it would be the fourth time in the past five years that the franchise has used its top pick on a defensive lineman, following Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas.

That defensive line group also includes recently acquired end Dee Ford, who the team traded a 2020 second-round pick to obtain and then promptly signed to a lucrative contract.

The question, then, would be just how would snaps and positions be divvied up among the group?

It’s something Niners’ brass has already discussed.

“You can never have too (many) D-linemen,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “… They are very hard to find. And when you get guys who are difference-makers, those guys can change the game as much as anyone just on their own by rushing the passer.”

Indeed, the idea of stocking up on the defensive line isn’t exactly groundbreaking. At the league meetings in March, Shanahan brought up the waves of pass-rushers that Super Bowl champions like the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles were able to throw at opposing offenses as recent examples of the benefits of a deep and talented line.

The Niners used the seventh overall pick in 2011 on Aldon Smith and deployed him exclusively as a situational pass-rusher on a team that already had the likes of Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald. Smith posted 14 sacks as a rookie while playing just 467 snaps. No other player in the top 10 in sacks that season played fewer than 659 snaps.

All of which is to say that if the Niners land the right player with the second pick, he can make a big impact from day one even if he doesn’t play every down immediately.

“I think what we want to do, I think you want to be great at something,” Lynch said. “You want to have — there’s certain positions. … You got to have the quarterback and you got to have the guys to knock them down.”

In reality, it’s not difficult to envision how Bosa, Williams or Allen would fit with the 49ers.

Bosa would likely play end opposite Ford, giving the Niners a Northern California version of what the Chargers do with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Williams could line up inside next to Buckner, and even though he doesn’t profile as a typical nose tackle, he is stout enough against the run to hold up there while also helping Buckner wreak havoc in the pass rush. Allen is good enough in coverage that he could play some Sam linebacker on early downs and move down to end on passing downs.

Regardless, the addition of any of those top players would mean fewer snaps for someone, likely Thomas, nose tackle D.J. Jones and/or Armstead.

Last year, Buckner led Niners defensive linemen in snaps per game at 50 with Thomas next at 38 and Armstead at 37. If the Niners add another top lineman, it’s reasonable to expect that player to start, which just means the rest of those snaps will be divvied differently.

For example, if the Niners draft Bosa, it’s likely that Thomas and Armstead would play inside next to Buckner more regularly. Or, given that Ford is on the smaller side, the Niners could theoretically play some combination of Thomas, Armstead and Bosa as the two ends on obvious running downs.

One way or another, the 49ers believe they can make it all fit.

“We walked into a situation where there were some guys that had been drafted very high,” Lynch said. “I think two years in we’re figuring out what everyone does best. And what I would say is there’s enough snaps to go around.”

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