49ers doing some 3-4 shopping at Senior Bowl?

Mike Nolan is a defensive connoisseur immersed this week in a delicatessen of defensive delights. Nolan is shopping as much as he's coaching at the Senior Bowl, surveying the several college stars who could become tasty new parts in the 3-4 system he envisions for the 49ers. Nolan made it clear when he shipped away Jamie Winborn that he's looking for fresh product to shape that scheme, and the new flavors he's sniffing in Mobile soon could be the cause of a new scent coming out of San Francisco.

As coach of the South squad, Nolan is working with as many as five defensive linemen who could have the skills to make the switch to outside linebacker in the 3-4.

He also is getting a daily in-depth look at several linebackers who could be potential San Francisco draftees, particularly considering the 49ers will likely need to replenish themselves with at least a few youngsters at that position this spring. Five of San Francisco's top six linebackers in 2005 are headed for free agency this year, and it is certain at least a few of them won't be back with the team.

While noting the talent along the South team's defensive line, Nolan said, "but many of them are undersized. I think some of them will be better suited for a 3-4 defense. If we have an opportunity to draft one of them, they could fit into that very well."

The most obvious prospect to make that transition is North Carolina State end Manny Lawson, who is wowing observers with his speed, explosiveness and pass rushing ability. Lawson (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) is lacking bulk as a standard 4-3 end, so he could be a natural to play outside in a 3-4. But his star is rising in Mobile and he appears to be climbing up draft slots in the first round.

While not causing quite the stir of Lawson, Florida State's Kameron Wimbley (6-4, 245) also has displayed the kind of edge skills San Francisco is looking for. Tennessee's Parys Haralson (6-1, 250) and Louisville's Elvis Dumervil (5-11½, 260) are other South linemen whose potential offers some intrigue at the next level, though Dumerville has had a difficult time shedding linemen now that he's going against quality opponents every down in practice.

"He's very explosive off the ball," Nolan said. "I think in certain 4-3 schemes he'll be very well suited for. He could also fit into the 3-4. We have not stood him up and worked him at linebacker. He's done very well at the end position. I just think that some of these guys will be better suited for an end that's wider by alignment than your typical 4-3."

The South also has solid linebacker prospects that may fit into San Francisco's system with UCLA's Spencer Havner (6-3, 239), UTEP's Thomas Howard (6-3, 234), Auburn's Travis Williams (6-0, 217) and Alabama's heralded DeMeco Ryans (6-1, 229). The latter two are marked by their speed and athleticism, and San Francisco must concentrate on finding a legitimate pass-rushing force from the outside. The 49ers finished with only 27 sacks in 2005, eight of them coming from defensive end Bryant Young and five from Brandon Moore, who often was coming on inside blitzes.

As Nolan said, "I'm looking for the best football players we can find. Whether it's a 4-3 defense or a 3-4 defense, it makes no difference to me. That's the great thing about being in the 3-4 … We were so much 4-3 this year, because it suited us the best. It's the best football players that we're looking for. That's why I say that I'm pretty excited about some of these guys. They're pretty versatile players and any time that you have versatile guys you can go in and out of what you want to. It's at least five or six guys that can play at either speed. When you have that, it makes for a pretty effective defense, then the cap has less of a hit on your football team."

The salary cap will be a consideration as the 49ers continue to build and tweak their defense with specific parts. Nolan already has indicated the team won't get into a bidding war in the upcoming months to retain the services of two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson, who was a disappointment as a pass-rushing edge threat this year in the new scheme.

Besides inside backer Derek Smith, whom the team would like to retain, the 49ers may be unwilling to pay even market value for any of its other four free-agent linebackers, a list that includes Peterson, Moore, Andre Carter, and Saleem Rasheed.

While elite impact performers such as Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk – a legitimate possibility for San Francisco's early pick in the first round – aren't participating in the Senior Bowl, most of the other top-flight defensive talent is. Though they play for the North squad, Nolan also is getting a chance to scout linemen who could make the transition to 3-4 pass rushers in Indiana's Victor Adeyanju (who also could play end in the system at 6-4, 270), Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka (6-5, 262) and Virginia Tech's Darryl Tapp (6-1½, 257).

Stanford's Jon Alston (6-0, 218) and Iowa teammates Chad Greenway (6-2, 242) and Abdul Hodge (6-0, 235) are other fluid prospects at linebacker who could fit into a 3-4.

While the group of linebackers in Mobile may be deeper in talent than any other position, Nolan says the 49ers still must look for a particular type of player even though the crop is bountiful and it appears there are several prospects with whom the team couldn't go wrong.

"More importantly to me," Nolan said, "it's about the football players. We have several free agents at the linebacker position and I'd love to have everybody back, but we probably will lose some depth when it's all said and done. If we have to go to the draft and replenish some of those guys, that will be fine. I wouldn't stay on the linebacker thought just because we're a 3-4 team. I would do it more because I thought that those players were the best players when we were drafting."

Which is another way of saying some prospects who may be playing linebacker for the 49ers in the future aren't necessarily playing that position in college all-star games today.


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