The 49ers have invested three first-round picks in the defensive line over the last three drafts, but are projected to do so yet again in 2018. The reason is because the line does not yet have all the pieces it needs to function the way its designed. It's resulted in extremely low sack production — only eight teams had less sacks than the 49ers last year.
The missing piece? The "Leo," or primary edge rusher, often lining up on the weak side of the formation in space.
That's the clean-up role, which is integral to their defensive infrastructure, and the 49ers don't have anyone spectacular at it. They have power players like DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Earl Mitchell on the line, and no real speed outside of journeyman Cassius Marsh.
Odds are the 49ers are looking for the player to fill this role with a higher-upside talent. It may among be their most invested in positions this offseason. Whether it's in free agency or the draft, it's possible they spend big to get the player. But now, with Ezekiel Ansah and Demarcus Lawrence being tagged, it seems highly likely that they will address it in the draft.
Saleh has described what they're looking for.
“People who have been attached to the system, you’re looking at Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, Vic Beasley,” the 49ers defensive coordinator said, citing examples. “People outside the system, you look at Von Miller, Khalil Mack. Back in its heyday, Charles Haley would’ve been a guy like that.
“He’s your premier pass rusher. We do everything we can to get him to the open side. His hair’s on fire. Just get after the quarterback.”
Haley aside (6-foot-5, 252 lbs.), the average Leo size here of players who entered the league between 2003 and 2016 comes in just under 6-foot-3, and 252 pounds.
As far as characteristics go, time and time again Saleh has mentioned violence in his players.
“I can’t wait to see the violence at which we play,” Saleh said in August prior to the preseason opener. Then in his Week 17 presser, when setting goals for next season, Saleh talked speed and ball-hawking, but emphasized “violence” again, mentioning the word four times in a single response.
Considering all that, the 49ers need a fast, violent edge rusher between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3, and around 250 pounds (though, even up to 6-foot-5 isn’t a deal breaker). Since it's an important role to fill, this player may be picked within the first few rounds of the draft, even as high as No. 9 overall. So, ideally this player will have had college production and be technically sound. That’s what Saleh will be drawn to when entering his bid for who the 49ers should select to fill the Leo spot.
Here's a look at the top candidates.
Arden Key, LSU
Height/weight: 6-foot-6, 265 lbs.
2017: 33 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 8 QB hurries, FF
A unanimous four-star recruit out of high school, Key was a regular starter for LSU since his freshman year. He was named Freshman All-America and is coming off a second consecutive first-team All-SEC selection. While he had relatively low sack production as a junior (8 games), Key piled up 11.0 sacks the year before, impressively setting an LSU single-season record. His 21.0 sacks recorded in 31 career games are tied for third in school history. He’s had injury, weight and reported off-field issues, and isn’t perfect against the run as pointed out by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, but Key has arguably the most potential as a pure edge rusher. The 49ers would have to decide if they want to swing for the fences on this one.
Bradley Chubb, NC State
Height/weight: 6-foot-4, 260 lbs.
2017: 72 tackles, 23 TFL, 10.0 sacks, FF
It's highly unlikely he falls to the 49ers, as Chubb looks like the most advanced of the edge rushers coming out. With crazy production over the past three years—totaling 194 tackles, 54.5 for a loss and 25.0 sacks in that time—and no injury or character flags, he is a blue-chip prospect. Along with being the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Chubb was the Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner in 2017, an award given to the best defensive player in the nation. He joins recent defensive line winners Jonathan Allen, Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.
Hercules Mata’afa, Washington State
Height/weight: 6-foot-2, 252 lbs.
Class: RS Jr.
2017: 45 tackles, 22.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks
Mata’afa is one of the most productive and tenacious edge prospects in this draft. Over his three-year career with the Cougars, the three-time All-Pac 12 selection racked up 119 tackles, with 44.5 coming behind the line of scrimmage, and 20 sacks. As a junior in 2017, he was named a consensus All-American as a defensive tackle. Mata’afa was also All-Pac-12 first-team as a defensive end and defensive tackle; he was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year; and he became the first-ever defensive player to win the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year award. With his speed and violent style, Mata’afa perfectly fits the identity of the 49ers’ growing young defense. But he's still a projection as an interior defensive lineman converting to the edge.
Marcus Davenport, UTSA
Height/weight: 6-foot-5, 259 lbs.
2017: 55 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 8 QB hurries, 3 FF, FR
Davenport is the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, and brings a lot of upside as an NFL pass rusher. He’s long, powerful and very athletic, had solid production over his career, and led a top-5 defense as a senior. Davenport also holds several single-season and career records at UTSA. And right now, the arrow is pointing up. At the Senior Bowl, he described his game as violent and fast. With that attitude and his ceiling, Saleh might be a fan. But his combine might've made it so they'd have to pick Davenport at No. 9, which still seems too high for what he is.
Harold Landry, Boston College
Height/weight: 6-foot-3, 250 lbs.
2017: 38 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks
Blazing speed around the edge puts Landry in first-round consideration, and maybe even top-10 depending on the team. He does some exciting things when his speed and bend come together at once. As a junior in 2016, he set the school's single-season sack record with 16.5. He didn't do much before or after, though, working through an ankle injury in 2017. Landry survives on one move, but it’s really good. It’s him racing the edge – bending and using speed to slingshot around. These are ideal traits for a Leo, a player who operates out in space. Landry is also close to the average size of the Leo prototypes Saleh referenced.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma
Height/weight: 6-foot-1, 240 lbs.
Class: RS Sr.
2017: 76 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 8.0 sacks, 3 FF
While a hair short, Okoronkwo fits the mold. The athletic linebacker/end was a constant presence for Oklahoma. He was named a first-team All-American and Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. His 21.0 career sacks rank him second in Sooners history, and he had 17 of them over the last two years as a full-time starter. Okoronkwo has the tools and right build to be a successful Leo at the next level. His quickness, motor and general omnipresence is promising. But with an iffy combine showing, he could be available in the late second or even third round.
Height/weight via player school bio
Stats provided by Sports Reference
Media courtesy Getty Images, USA Today Sports Images