The 49ers hope that Aldon Smith is with them for the long term. The short term? That's a lot fuzzier, and it may prompt them to look at a pass rusher early in the draft. Trent Baalke on Friday said that the team was ready to count on Corey Lemonier, who is expected to improve upon a promising rookie campaign, as well as veteran Dan Skuta. After all, the 49ers went 5-0 in the games that Smith missed last season.
But if they did look for a pass rusher, the following players would be intriguing. All of them are listed as defensive ends - as were Smith and Lemonier - but have the athleticism to play outside linebacker in the 49ers' scheme. All also are similar to Smith in that they are tall, long-armed prospects. They are expected to be drafted anywhere from the end of the first round through the third round.
Kony Ealy, Missouri. (6-4, 273) 34 ¼-inch arms, 9 ½-inch hands.
This should be an easy projection for the 49ers because Ealy essentially played the same spot in the Tigers defense that Smith did in 2010. Ealy is bigger and not quite as long as Smith. He mostly played with his hand on the ground but, like Smith at Missouri, also dropped into coverage from time to time. He had eight sacks and knocked down six passes. He also had an interception for a touchdown return. Most teams likely are looking at Ealy as 4-3 defensive end. That was the book on Smith when he was coming out in the draft, too.
Dee Ford, Auburn (6-2, 252, 32 7/8, 10 ¼).
Ford is not as long as the pass rushers Baalke has preferred in the past. But he was a relentless defender for Auburn who has the traits of a team leader, something the 49ers could use considering their spate of off-the-field issues. The 49ers likely got a long look at him when they were examining Lemonier last year. Ford last season had 14 ½ tackles for loss and 10 ½ sacks, including two in the national championship game. He also excelled against top competition at the Senior Bowl. He missed the first two games of his senior season with an MCL issue, and Ford has been nicked at various times in his career.
Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State (6-3, 251, 33 ¾, 11)
He might be the most similar prospect to Smith in that he has excellent balance to go along with his long frame and long arms. His 11-inch hands must stand out to Baalke, who mooned over Smith's mitts three years ago. The downside is that Lawrence was suspended three times at Boise State, a red flag in any draft year but more so this year for the 49ers given their recent issues. If teams deem those issues insignificant, he could be gone before the 49ers pick at no. 30 overall. San Francisco hosted Lawrence earlier this month.
Marcus Smith, Louisville (6-3, 251, 34, 10)
Smith played on his feet more than any of the players above and is quicker and more agile than the others. He played on both sides of the defensive line and finished with 14 ½ sacks, second best in the nation. He's smart (a former quarterback) with good character, and he's still learning the position. That is, there might be good upside with Smith.
Trent Murphy, Stanford (6-5, 250, 33 7/8, 11 1/8)
The 49ers, of course, don't need to do as much work scouting Murphy. He not only played for many of the coaches, including defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, at Stanford, he played the precise role the 49ers would ask him to play in the NFL. Murphy led the nation with 15 sacks and, like Ealy, also had an interception return for a touchdown. He's not as explosive or athletic as some of the others. But he was steadily productive for the Cardinal and could fill in right away for the 49ers. He could stand to add 10 pounds to his frame. Murphy also was a team captain last year.
Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas (6-3, 247, 33 ¾, 9 5/8)
He's not as stout as the 49ers would like and is a little Manny Lawson-ish in his lower body. But Jeffcoat showed a very good motor and did a lot of the stunting and looping underneath the 49ers do with their outside linebackers, especially Smith. Jeffcoat always seemed to be around the ball and led Texas in tackles last season. Like Smith, he uses his long arms well, keeping offensive linemen at bay and giving a good pop with his hands at the point of contact. He appears to be a classic 'tweener, and because of that he could fall deeper in the draft than his talent warrants.
- Matt Barrows