Draft outlook: Defensive line

The 49ers used two of their top three draft picks last year on defensive linemen, and it's no stretch to believe they'll use another first-day selection on a DL this year. They probably have more need for a tackle this time around, but that doesn't mean the Niners couldn't surprise everybody by grabbing a top DE with the No. 16 overall pick in the first round. "If the best defensive end on the board is there, I can assure you we're going to take him," GM Terry Donahue said.

That player is believed to be USC defensive end Kenechi Udeze, who visited at the Niners facility earlier this month and impressed coaches and team personnel. Udeze is projected to go among the top 10 picks, but recent concerns about a shoulder problem could cause him to drop. Ohio State's Will Smith is another top pass rusher with good bulk whom the Niners might consider with their top pick.

"Udeze is a very good player," Donahue said. "He's a great kid. He's a very impressive person. He'd be a real asset for your organization. He's certainly one of the top defensive ends in the draft."

But with four viable defensive ends already on the roster - that is, providing recent addition Brandon Whiting returns to full strength after shoulder surgery - the Niners likely will go in a different direction with their top pick, with stud tackles such as Miami's Vince Wilfork and Oklahoma's Tommie Harris also strong possibilities for the selection.

But those guys could be gone, too, when the Niners make their first selection, meaning San Francisco may be more serious about zeroing in on a DL with its second or third pick. If not then, the Niners definitely will be searching for the best DL available when they open the second day of the draft on Sunday.

In addition to Udeze, the Niners have had ends Antwan Odom of Alabama and Tony Hargrove of Georgia Tech and tackle Mathias Askew of Michigan State in for visits. The Niners, who are looking for lineman who could excel in a 3-4 defensive set the team will use more of this season, also could be tempted to take tackles Marcus Tubbs of Texas, Dwan Edwards of Oregon State, Randy Starks of Maryland, Darnell Dockett of Florida State or strongman Isaac Sopoaga of Hawaii if one of those players is available at the right spot in rounds 2 through 4.

The 317-pound Sopoaga, who could play nose tackle in the 3-4, is an intriguing prospect for the Niners because he would immediately become their heaviest defender and one of their strongest players. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 42 times at the February scouting combine, the most of any draft prospect this year.

The Niners also like the idea of playing DE Andre Carter at outside linebacker in the 3-4, meaning they might be more inclined to take the best tackle prospect available rather than the best end when the time comes for them to grab a DL.

"Certainly, we feel like if (Whiting's) shoulder surgery is successful and he's able to rehab the way we're hopeful that he will, then we'll have four established defensive ends," Donahue said. "When I say established, we'll have Carter and (John) Engelberger, who has started for us, Whiting, who has started for Philadelphia, and then we have a young, promising prospect in Andrew Williams that we like and we think he's got a good upside to him.

"Now, all of a sudden, that creates some flexibility for us in the draft this year. We're not necessarily looking for an end. Now, if one drops our way, will we fire on him? Yeah, we will. But we're not going into the thing saying, 'Well, end is one of those sore spots we have.'"

But if the Niners don't come out of the draft with an end, expect they will come out with a tackle. And, like last year, they could come away with one of each.

Niners Digest Top Stories