NFL Draft 2020: Examining what the 49ers Options are at Defensive Tackle
DeForest Buckner was a huge reason for the 49ers defensive success last year. Buckner did a lot of the dirty work, regularly engaging in double teams to free up teammates. Arik Armstead was one of the bigger beneficiaries of Buckner, as Armstead posted a career high 10 sacks last season.
In 2019, the 49ers only ranked sixth in the NFL in sacks. Though, sacks don’t tell the whole story. The 49ers were one of the best teams when it came to pressuring opposing quarterbacks, along with having the best pass defense in 2019. San Francisco allowed a league best 169.2 passing yards a game, which can be accredited to the ferocious pass rush.
With Buckner gone, the 49ers have lost one of the very best pass rushing defensive tackles in the NFL. Aaron Donald is on his own tier, but after Donald, Buckner is right there with some of the best pass rushing tackles.
Since his career started in 2016, Buckner has sacked opposing quarterbacks 28.5 times. During that same span, Buckner has more sacks than 2019 Pro Bowl tackles Jurrell Casey (23), Kenny Clark (16), Grady Jarrett (20.5), and Fletcher Fox (26).
Buckner is an every down defensive tackle, as he excels against the run and pass. The 49ers do not have another player like Buckner on the defense. If the 49ers want a repeat of their 2019 defensive success, they should do their best to duplicate or improve their 2019 personnel.
Even without Buckner, the 49ers still have one of the most talented defensive lines in the NFL. Led by Nick Bosa, the 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year, the 49ers defensive line is still in good shape. However, Buckner can’t just be forgotten.
With the 2020 Draft approaching, the 49ers have three options when it comes to defensive tackle position: draft for splash, draft for depth, or roll the dice on the current roster.
Draft for splash targets
- Derrick Brown (Auburn): Top 10 Projection
- Javon Kinlaw (South Carolina): Top 15 Projection
Brown is hands down the best defensive tackle in this draft class. Brown is primarily expected to be a top 10 pick, and there is very little chance he’s on the board at 13. If the 49ers feel like Brown is in line to become the next Aaron Donald, they may trade up from 13 using 2021 draft capital.
Kinlaw is not too far behind Brown, in terms of how he ranks as a prospect. Like Brown, Kinlaw is expected to make an immediate impact as a 3-down defensive tackle in the NFL. Acquiring either Brown or Kinlaw would give the 49ers a legit interior pass rushing threat, that would ultimately minimize the hole that the departure of Buckner left.
The 49ers are likely to trade down from 13 and or 31, with the goal being to acquire more day 2 draft capital. If the 49ers draft Brown or Kinlaw with their first pick, they could trade down from 31 and address other positions of need such as receiver, later on.
Draft for depth targets
- Ross Blacklock (TCU): 1st-2nd Round Projection
- Jordan Elliott (Missouri): 2nd Round Projection
- Justin Madubuike (Texas A&M): 2nd-3rd Round Projection
- Raekwon Davis (Abalama): 2nd-3rd Round Projection
- Rashard Lawrence (LSU): 3rd-4th Round Projection
- McTelvin Agim (Arkansas): 4th-5th Round Projection
There are solid defensive tackles to be found between rounds 2 and 4. However, the 49ers do not currently have a pick between these rounds. If the 49ers trade down and acquire 2nd, 3rd, or 4th round compensation, they can nab one of the aforementioned prospects.
Buckner is 6’7”. D.J. Jones is expected to step up this year in his absence, but stands only 6’ feet tall. The tackles listed above all stand between 6’2” and 6’6”. Elliot, Blacklock, and Madubuike are all starting caliber defensive tackles in the NFL.
They don’t get the attention that Brown and Kinlaw do, but they are still very solid prospects. Elliot, Blacklock, and Madubuike could all potentially start in year one, and eventually become high quality tackles. At the very minimum, this upcoming season they can contribute to the committee that is projected to take place to help fill Buckner’s role.
At this point, Davis, Lawrence, and Agim all project more as projects. All three can provide rotational depth as rookies, but are not looked at as immediate difference makers. However, Kris Kocurek, the 49ers Defensive Line Coach, may be able get the most out of the talented prospects right away.
Davis in particular, is a very intriguing prospect. Davis stands 6’6” and made jaw dropping plays while at Alabama. Davis has all the physical traits you want, but struggled with consistency in college. Pairing Davis with Kocurek could do wonders for the talented prospect.
Roll the dice on the current roster
The 49ers will miss the every down presence that Buckner brought to the table. However, even with Buckner gone, the 49ers still have one of the best defensive lines in football. San Francisco can choose to not address the defensive tackle position in the draft, and roll the dice on their current roster.
As it currently stands, the 49ers are expected to take a platoon approach to fill Buckner’s void. D.J. Jones figures to be the solution on base downs, with Julian Taylor, Kentavious Street, and Kevin Givens competing for backup and situational roles.
On pass rushing downs the 49ers can get creative. Either (or both) Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas can kick inside and rush the passer. Armstead is capable of doing the dirty work Buckner was so accustomed to doing.
Meanwhile, Soloman Thomas is better suited to rush the passer from the inside. If given the opportunity to rush inside regularly, Thomas may just be able to change his career path trajectory.
Nick Bosa is on his way to stardom. Dee Ford is another stud pass rusher. Those are two of the best pass rushing threats in the game. Bosa and Ford are both great fits for what they are asked to do on defense, and I don’t believe Buckner’s absence changes either of their roles.
The 49ers need someone who regularly applies pressure between the guards and center. They may look to add that player in the draft, or maybe that player already resides on the roster. If the 49ers can’t replicate the pressure they consistently applied on opposing quarterbacks all of 2019, the defense will take a step back.