49ers preparing for the draft: DL

As the 49ers prepare for the April 26-27 NFL Draft, here's an analysis of the team along the defensive line, looking at San Francisco's draft needs and why the Niners may or may not use one of their six selections to address this unit, what rounds in which the team should think about a defensive lineman and some of the prospects available that the team may consider.

Current players: DE/NT Isaac Sopoaga, NT Aubrayo Franklin, DE Justin Smith, DE Ray McDonald, DE/NT Ronald Fields, DE Melvin Oliver, NT Joe Cohen, DE Walter Curry, DE Atiyyah Ellison

State of the position: The 49ers have been struggling to keep up along their defensive line for several years, and since the season ended they've lost two of their most effective overall defenders from this group when Bryant Young retired and Marques Douglas was allowed to leave in free agency, where he signed a four-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The signing of Smith will fill the void left by Douglas at right end, and the 49ers plan to move the big and athletic Sopoaga - a nose tackle by trade - outside on the other end in their true 3-4 alignments. Sopoaga might be needed at nose tackle, however, where he rotated with starter Franklin last year. The 49ers are counting on both Smith and Sopoaga to become fixtures along their line and anchors in their defensive scheme. Sopoaga came on last season and showed some nice development, but it remains to be seen how he'll perform when counted on in an increased role at a position he's still getting familiar with. Fields also is versatile enough to play both positions along the front, and the team is hoping to see some development from 2007 third-round pick McDonald as an edge rusher at end. Oliver - who started 14 games at end in a 4-3 base set as a rookie in 2006 - missed the entire season last year with a knee injury and also might factor into the equation. Cohen - who missed his rookie season last year with a knee injury - will get another look this year, but this is definitely an area where the 49ers could use at least one more quality player, and in a perfect world, a guy who's good enough to start along San Francisco's front wall.

Position draft need priority: High

Last defensive lineman drafted: DE Ray McDonald, 2007 third round, No. 97 player selected overall; DT Joe Cohen, 2007 fourth round, No. 135 player selected overall

Why the 49ers will draft a defensive lineman: They are always on the lookout for a player who can upgrade a unit that has struggled to hold the upper hand for several seasons. And they need depth here to fill out the rotation and make sure they're covered should injuries become a factor.

Why the 49ers won't draft a defensive lineman: Because they only have six draft picks and will need to use them at other positions. San Francisco invested a lot of money in this unit during the offseason and may not want to add more investment with the cost of a draft pick.

When to address: First, second, third and fourth round

Who's out there: There are some excellent defensive line prospects available in this year's draft, but top guys such as LSU tackle Glenn Dorsey and Virginia end Chris Long will be long gone when the 49ers go on the clock. The 49ers would have to do some serious moving up in the draft order to get another top prospect such as USC tackle Sedrick Ellis or pass-rushing ends Derrick Harvey of Florida and Vernon Gholston of Ohio State, but the price would be steep and that's unlikely to happen. Still, there should be some very solid prospects available when the 49ers draft late in the first round and a starting-caliber player could slip to them with their second-round pick. Though he's a bit small for 3-4 duty, the 49ers would love to see Auburn end Quentin Groves fall to them, and top prospects such as Clemson's Phillip Merling, Miami's Calais Campbell, Notre Dame's Trevor Laws, North Carolina State's Demarrio Pressley and North Carolina's Kentwan Balmer all could be available when San Francisco goes on the clock for the first time. At least one of those guys, along with Virginia Tech end Chris Ellis and Arkansas tackle Marcus Harrison, still could be on the board when the 49ers pick in the second round. The good quality at the top will push some prospects down the list, and in the later rounds the 49ers could take a look at tackles such as Auburn's Pat Sims, Texas' Frank Okam, Maryland's Dre Moore and Virginia Tech's Carlton Powell along with ends Lawrence Jackson of USC, Cliff Avril of Purdue, Chris Ellis of Virginia Tech, Kenneth Iwebama of Iowa State and Tommy Blake of TCU. There's some talent here, and the 49ers appear certain to grab at least one player at these positions. The 49ers have had Harvey, Merling and Groves in for pre-draft visits and would be highly satisfied to end up with either of them.

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