The Super Bowl has come and gone, meaning we’re officially in the NFL offseason. The 49ers will head to the scouting combine at the end of this month, but some interesting questions are being asked in the meantime.
Let’s get to a few in another edition of our weekly mailbag:
Reindeer asks: With the news that Antonio Brown might have been involved in a domestic violence case in January, do you think that could effectively kill the already slim chance that he goes to the Bay? Would that give them an “out” not to pursue him? Thanks Chris, have a good one.
The more this Brown saga has played out, the less likely I think a trade sending him to the 49ers would materialize. The market appears to be cooling to the point where the Steelers might as well keep him. Because why would they trade him while only garnering mediocre draft compensation in return, just to pay him more than $21 million over the next two seasons to play for another team?
That would be a palatable outcome for the Steelers if Brown would bring back a good haul, perhaps two second-round picks or even a first-rounder from a desperate team. But now, with a domestic violence-related allegation surfacing, and after he left the team during the week of practice before a must-win game in Week 17, it seems nearly impossible to imagine San Francisco pulling the trigger with the Reuben Foster debacle fresh in their minds.
But you did say “the Bay,” which could include the Raiders, even though they don’t have a home venue for the coming season. I think they’re more likely to make a move for Brown than the 49ers. Gun to my head, I think the Steelers and Brown sing “Kumbaya” at some point this offseason and bring the band back together for another run.
Troy asks: Are we really going D line with the number 2 pick? This draft is loaded with D linemen.
I would be shocked if the 49ers didn’t go defensive line. But I think sometimes people conflate the defensive line positions as being the same.
DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas are similar players in that they’re best rushing the quarterback from the interior. Where the 49ers lack is with a game-changing talent along the edge, which can be one of the most important positions in football with the right player.
Remember what Von Miller did for the Broncos in Super Bowl 50? Or how the Chiefs this season balanced their explosive offense with edge rushers Dee Ford and Justin Houston, who combined for 22 sacks to help Kansas City lead the league in that category? Remember how rookie Aldon Smith in 2011 transformed a solid 49ers defense into a dominant unit because he was so fearsome on the outside?
Pressuring the quarterback is the most important trait for a contending defense, and the 49ers are middle of the road in that area. All signs point to the 49ers taking a significant step with another good edge defender. And because those players rarely hit the open market in free agency due to the franchise tag, early in the draft is the best way to go.
Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Kentucky’s Josh Allen are the players to watch with the No. 2 overall selection.
Gold Blooded asks: Would you go after a “Leo” like Brandon Graham or Dante Fowler in free agency, knowing Josh Allen will almost certainly be there, or a “Sam” like Anthony Barr or Shaq Barrett, with the possibility that Bosa might be available at No. 2?
Good question. Here’s the thing, “Sam” and “Leo” are positions used in the base defense, which is on the field roughly one-third of the time. Otherwise, the 49ers simply have two pass-rushing defensive ends in sub packages, which can be mixed and matched, particularly in long third-down scenarios.
So the 49ers on the edges could have two “Sam” linebackers, two “Leo” defensive ends, or one of each. Ultimately, it would come down to who performs best in practice and how the coaching staff likes the match-up with the opponent.
To your question, I’d caution against the 49ers operating as though Bosa would be available. He’s widely considered the best prospect available and he plays a premium position, which means there’s a great chance he goes first overall.
If that’s how it plays out, then adding a player like Graham (or Ezekiel Ansah), a natural defense end, would be wise to eventually pair with a “Sam” like Allen. But signing Barr wouldn’t be a terrible idea either, even if the team wanted to take Allen. Versatility is paramount, and having those two could create intriguing possibilities given their coverage ability paired with pass rushing skills.
Marcus Covarrubias asks: Who replaces Earl Mitchell at nose tackle? I don’t believe Solomon Thomas nor Arik Armstead have the girth to play inside on rushing downs. Are they banking 100% on DJ Jones or do they have to look to the draft and free agency?
Consider Earl Mitchell a bridge player, who in 2017 was brought in to help the defensive line adjust to former position coach Jeff Zgonina’s system. But Zgonina is gone and nose tackle is decreasing in value, which meant Mitchell, 31, became a salary-cap casualty.
The 49ers essentially had three nose tackles on the 53-man roster last season: Mitchell, Jones and Sheldon Day. Only two could be active on game day, and it appears San Francisco is comfortable enough with Jones after he played well late in his second season. Day is the better pass rusher and might be more heavily featured in throwing situations in 2019.
It seems unlikely the 49ers would make an investment at nose tackle, particularly with second-year pros Jullian Taylor and Kentavius Street expected to be in the mix at defensive tackle.
Derek Gray asks: Who’s in the better position, the Rams on their quick hit and loaded dice to win a Super Bowl, or the 49ers’ brick by brick, let’s build a dynasty version?
While it’s extremely hard to get back to the Super Bowl a year after losing it, the Rams will be the clear favorite to win the NFC West, though the Seahawks have a shot to dethrone Sean McVay and Co. while San Francisco will enter the season likely with the third-best odds.
The answer is the Rams. They have a far more talented roster, including arguably the league’s best player in Aaron Donald, a quarterback on a rookie contract and one of the league’s brightest coaches.
The 49ers might not be far behind. A full season from Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon - plus adding more top-end talent in free agency and with the No. 2 pick in the draft, and development from young players on the roster (particularly on defense) - and San Francisco might be contending for a playoff spot next season.
The difference: The Rams are expected to compete for a Super Bowl, a wide gap from where the 49ers sit.
Danakin Skywalka asks: You never answer my question ever!!!
My apologies. I hope we can still be friends.