SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Jim Tomsula, the 49ers new head coach who spent the last eight years coaching the defensive line, has a new project.
General manager Trent Baalke said finding a player at that specific position is especially difficult. He usually identifies just four or five draftable players in each draft class that can play the four technique. A rare breed.
"There just aren’t many," Baalke said. "A lot of them are playing basketball, which this young man did for several years. Then he committed to football full time. You got a young man that hasn’t spent a ton of time in the weight room. He’s been on the (basketball) courts."
The 49ers had a need at the position after releasing Ray McDonald midway through last season after his second arrest since August involving a domestic dispute with a woman. And the status of former All-Pro Justin Smith is still in the air as he ponders retirement this offseason.
Armstead, 20, stands 6-foot-8 and is viewed as far from a finished product. The Sacramento native showed flashes of dominance during his three-year career at Oregon, but has a long way to go to warrant his first-round selection. (You can read a complete - and lengthy - scouting report, here.)
"I don’t think I’m raw," Armstead said in a conference call. "I think if you watch film of me, you’ll see a technically sound player. I think I have a lot of room to grow and a lot of things to improve on, but I’m looking forward to doing that with the coaching staff there."
Baalke watched Armstead play in person twice last season, including the Pac 12 Championship Game at Levi's Stadium in December. He mentioned Armstead played with a high ankle sprain sustained in Sept. 6's win over Michigan State that hindered his production. But Armstead's best two games, Baalke said, came in the two College Football Playoff games against Florida State and Ohio State at the end of the year.
The 49ers moved back by trading the 15th pick to San Diego for the 17th pick, a fourth-round pick (117), and a fifth-round pick in 2016. The Chargers took Wisconsin running back Melvin Gorgon with that 15th pick.
"I’m excited to be close to home, close to my family, (who) all live in Northern California," said Armstead. "Being able to play for the Niners and represent Northern California, being a Northern California guy, it’s going to be huge for me. I just want to represent this part of the state the right way."
Armstead says he wants to be a three-down player along the 49ers' defensive line, much like McDonald and Smith were. In their nickel package under former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Smith and McDonald kicked inside over the opposing guards with outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks playing defensive end.
In a base front, with a nose tackle covering both A-gaps over the center, those defensive ends kick out to cover the tackles' inside shoulder.
"They’re hard to find. You talk to people in this league and do what we do in the evaluation process, you need those guys to play the type of defense we play," said Baalke. "Without them, you can’t play this defense. (Armstead) is a young a man that we identified that has the traits, has the skill sets, the want-to, to play it the way we want to play it."
"When you do watch the tape ... (Armstead's) hips are down and he does get push in the pocket in a nickel defense," Tomsula said. "Now is it consistent as you want right now? No. It’s not. But you see it. You’ve got enough reps of seeing it that he can do that. With the weight room, that just makes it better."
Neither Baalke or Tomsula would indicate how long it would take for Armstead to develop into a contributor at one of the team's deepest positions. But recent history dictates Baalke expects first-round picks to take on significant roles in their first seasons.
Aldon Smith played over half the defensive snaps as a pass rusher his rookie season in 2011 and safety Eric Reid started as a rookie in 2013. Jimmie Ward, last year's 30th-overall pick, played more than half the snaps before a foot injury ended his season prematurely last November.
"There’s going to be some development to this process. But we’re well aware of that and feel very confident that he’s going to come in and learn how to strain and play at this level," Baalke said.
For perhaps the first time since Baalke took over control of the draft in 2010, the 49ers selected the player they were most commonly associated in pre-draft build up. Since 2010, it's been difficult to peg exactly which direction San Francisco would go in the first round.
"It was a consensus, for the most part, that he was going to be the pick (by the media). So I figured it’s my only shot to get you on my side," Baalke joked.
"It really worked to our favor this year. Because, in some respects, in the last three years … everyone that were associated with (leading up to the draft), we never picked. So now this year, we associated with this young man and we picked him. So I think in some ways it worked in our favor a little bit.