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2013 Scouting Combine Preview: Defense

Posted Feb 20, 2013

Mike Mayock of NFL Network discussed the defensive prospects at the upcoming Scouting Combine.

The same 11 starters have anchored the 49ers defense in the first two seasons of the Jim Harbaugh era. Under the direction of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, San Francisco has become the league’s stingiest unit, giving up a league-low average of 15.7 points per game since the start of 2011.

But there’s always room for improvement, and for the 49ers that means more depth at the back end of the roster on defense. For the new blood that’s about to enter the NFL, this week’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis will be a big factor heading into April’s Draft.

Speculation is rampant at this point of the NFL offseason and many pundits have pegged the 49ers to focus on defensive linemen. According to NFL Network analyst and Draft expert Mike Mayock, the 49ers could benefit from a rookie class that includes depth on the defensive line.

If San Francisco did elect to draft a player to serve as a backup to Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, Mayock has his eye on two good options who could be available when the 49ers draft at No. 31 in the first round.

“There are some really good kind of nose tackle, five technique guys out there right now. San Francisco has a couple aging guys at that position, though they're really good players” Mayock said. “So when you start getting down toward the end of the first round at that five technique, Datone Jones from UCLA is a late (first-rounder) to a mid (second-rounder). Margus Hunt from SMU, you might get him in the second round.  But he's a big, impressive kid that I think down the road will be a heck of a player.  They're the logical guys.”

Jones is listed at 6-foot-4, 280 pounds and burst on to the national scene with a disruptive senior year that featured career highs in tackles (57), tackles for loss (17.5) and sacks (six).

At 6-foot-8, 277 pounds, Hunt is a gifted athlete who initially went to SMU to pursue a career in the shot put and discus. He’s played four years of football now and many expect his name to rise up draft boards with the ability to run a sub-4.7-second, 40-yard dash and lift 225 pounds more than 40 times on the bench.

But with unrestricted free-agent nose tackles Isaac Sopaga and Ricky Jean Francois, the 49ers may have to add new players to the interior of the defensive line as well. According to Mayock, of the 333 athletes invited to the Combine, six of them have first-round grades at defensive tackle.

In Mayock’s estimation, Florida’s Sharrif Floyd, Utah’s Star Lotulelei, and Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson have separated themselves as the cream of the crop at their position and will likely be gone by the 31st pick of the draft. But there are still three more defensive tackles that could drop to the end of the first round for the 49ers.

“Sylvester Williams from North Carolina, Kawann Short from Purdue, and Johnathan Hankins from Ohio State,” Mayock said, “those three guys all offer at 300 pounds, an ability to push the pocket with power, and also have some quickness and finesse and gain in edge.”

In all, the 49ers enter the Draft with 14 picks, including three projected compensatory selections. General manager Trent Baalke made Draft day trades last year that netted extra third, fifth and sixth-round selections this year.

As for Day 2 draft selections, which will feature the second and third rounds, Mayock also noted some other potential impact players on the defensive line. Namely, Georgia’s John Jenkins and Missouri Southern’s Brandon Williams at defensive tackle and Michigan State’s William Gholston at defensive end.

At the next level of defense, linebacker, the 49ers appear to be set for the long term: Aldon Smith is signed through 2015, Patrick Willis through 2016, Ahmad Brooks through 2017 and NaVorro Bowman through 2018. But all three of the team’s primary backups, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant and Clark Haggans are unrestricted free agents and could test the waters.

While the 49ers likely won’t go after Mayock’s top tier of linebackers (Georgia’s Alec Ogletree, Notre Dame’s Manti Te'o, and LSU’s Kevin Minter), there are still impact players who could be drafted later. In the middle rounds, Mayock sees North Carolina’s Kevin Reddick, Oregon’s Kiko Alonso and Florida’s Jon Bostic as quality options.

Of all the unrestricted free agents on the 49ers, none has a higher profile than Dashon Goldson. The All-Pro and Pro Bowl safety has been mentioned by pundits as a candidate to be franchise-tagged for the second straight year, but there are intriguing options at safety if the 49ers try to bolster position through the Draft.

Mayock has singled out Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro as the top safety in the Draft, while also including Matt Elam of Florida and Johnathan Cyprien of Florida International in his top flight of players at the position. But perhaps no safety will be in the Combine media spotlight more than former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu, the 5-foot-9 playmaker who earned the nickname “Honey Badger” in college.

“Tyrann Mathieu is a really interesting wildcard this weekend,” Mayock said. “My gut tells me he's a better football player than he is an athlete.  He's small.  I'm not sure he's going to run real well.  So I think teams are going to look at him as kind of a nickel and a kick returner.”

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