All of a sudden the San Francisco 49ers find themselves in the market for more pass rushers.
Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group indicated Tuesday Aldon Smith is on thin ice after his most recent run in with the law over the weekend when he was arrested at LAX for an alleged false bomb threat. The report cites sources close to the situation that led Kawakami to believe Smith might not play for the 49ers in 2014 leaving his future with the team in question.
What does it mean in the short-term for the 49ers?
First, Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta become very important players on the defense. Second, San Francisco is very likely to address outside linebacker with one of their six picks in the first three rounds of next month's draft.
When it comes to evaluating draft prospects, outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense is a difficult position to judge from the outside looking in. When the 49ers took Smith in the first round in 2011, he was largely unknown to the masses because he spent time playing interior defensive line at Missouri and registered just three sacks in his final collegiate season.
Simply put, evaluating outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme is all about traits and not necessarily about previous production. Skuta started out his career with the Bengals as an inside linebacker before the 49ers' brass saw characteristics that translated well to the outside. The same can be said for Ahmad Brooks when the team brought him in prior to the 2009 season.
Skimming defensive end and outside linebacker prospects in this draft might just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to looking for an eventual replacement for Smith if the team elects to go that route and cut ties with the former All Pro.
For now, taking Lemonier with a third-round pick last year looks better and better. According to Pro Football Focus, the Auburn alum had 20 quarterback pressures and three hits in 186 pass-rushing attempts, ranking 12th of 41 outside linebackers playing in a 3-4 scheme in his rookie season. If he takes the same steps in his second season that other 49ers draftees have in recent years, there might not be much drop off if Smith were forced out of San Francisco. The 49ers went 5-0 in Smith's absence while at a substance abuse treatment facility in 2013 during the soft portion of their schedule.
Taking a brief look prospects projected to go in the first two days of the draft, there are some candidates that fit what the 49ers are looking for. Reportedly they have a visit scheduled with Boise State pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence in the coming days.
Lawrence (6-3, 251) is regarded as one of the best pure pass rushers in this year's class. He's durable, playing every game of his two-year collegiate career, but also comes with red flags. Lawrence was suspended three times in two seasons for violating team rules and disciplinary issues. In light of everything that's happened with Smith, the 49ers would have a difficult time justifying bringing in Lawrence if they weren't completely convinced those rough patches off the field are behind him. Still, Lawrence was productive for the Broncos, notching 20 sacks in his two seasons.
Another name to keep an eye on Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu, whose name hasn't drawn much attention during the evaluation process because he didn't participate at the combine while dealing with a hamstring injury suffered during the week of the Senior Bowl.
Attaochu (6-3, 252) was very productive in his final season with the Yellow Jackets with 12.5 sacks as a defensive end in a 4-3 defense. He transitioned to that defense after having played outside linebacker in a 3-4 during the previous two seasons before the program went through a coaching change. His 31.5 career sacks ranks fifth all time in the ACC. Still, Attaochu is a raw prospect that could stand to add strength for bigger blockers he will face at the next level.
An important note about Attaochu - especially when comparing to Lawrence - he was a team captain for Georgia Tech and is regarded as a very high-character prospect.
The athletic traits are there as well. Attaochu ran a reported 4.60 40-yard dash at his pro day and jumped 37.5 inches in the vertical. Both those numbers are in the top tier of the position which could lead to being taken in the second round, where the 49ers have picks at No. 56 and 61. Taking Attaochu might require trading up into the earlier portions of the round if he is indeed a player they want.
San Francisco could also afford to use its first-round selection at No. 30 overall to take a pass rusher. The most likely candidate at that point in the draft is Auburn's Dee Ford, a collegiate teammate of Lemonier. Ford made waves during the combine saying he was "better" than potential No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. He said Clowney played like a "blind dog in a meat market."
At first glance, Ford (6-2, 252) doesn't look like he possesses the physical traits the 49ers covet for outside linebackers. He has 32 7/8-inch arms - more than an inch shorter than Attaochu's and Lawrence's - while many believe he is best suited as a defensive end in a 4-3 defense. But he's considered an elite pass rusher with intangibles that could transcend his natural fit into a given scheme.
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