The nose tackle position is essentially the most important one in a 3-4 defense. Currently, the 49ers have Aubrayo Franklin at the position, and he does a good job there, after beginning his Bay Area career on the downside. San Francisco fans were just about ready to close the book on him, when in 2009 he decided to become one of the best, if not the best, nose tackles in the league. In 2010, he definitely regressed, mostly due to a lacking offseason workout program.
But regression or not, he is now one of the league's most respected nose tackles, and the 49ers will be sticking to the 3-4 with new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. It's still up in the air as to whether or not the rather smallish Franklin fits in Fangio's iteration of the 3-4 alignment, but his skillset alone is something that any coach in the league could use in some way. Franklin played the 2010 season on a franchise tag, and will now apparently hit the 2011 free agent market, in whatever form it exists.
After Franklin, the 49ers have Ricky Jean Francois, a player the previous coaching staff believed could grow into the role of starter, a steal out of the seventh round. In preseason playing time, Jean Francois impressed and solidified himself as the backup nose tackle. When he got a chance to take some snaps in the regular season, he didn't do as much as the 49ers would have liked, leading many to believe he's just not ready. Coming out of the seventh round, he's still a steal even if he never pans out as a starter — you want to at least be able to get your backups out of he later rounds, and Jean Francois fits the bill.
The 2011 NFL Draft is the first option for the 49ers to strengthen the position, perhaps a bit earlier than the seventh round. They have other needs, especially if they believe Franklin can be signed for at least another season or if they feel secure with Jean Francois, so they likely won't be looking to the first or second rounds for the position. Someone like Phil Taylor, the consensus number one nose tackle in the draft out of Baylor, is probably out of their reach with his 2011 NFL Scouting Combine performance likely solidifying his position in the first round.
After Taylor though, you have a run of very solid nose tackles that could last until around the fifth round. Some of these guys look as though they could be day one starters, and the overwhelming strength of the class around them is forcing them to fall. Nose tackles also aren't drafted all that high with consistency, for whatever reason, which bodes well for the 49ers.
Jerrell Powe could go as early as the second round or as late as the fourth. The best thing about Powe is that he is a prototypical nose tackle, which is bad for him considering the way he was used at Ole Miss. His 2010 season seemed to be predicated on him trying to show he's something he's not, playing more like a 4-3 defensive tackle than a 3-4 monster occupying space. It's an easy case of being utilized incorrectly, and if that makes him drop, the 49ers could find themselves with an absolute steal in the third round.
Maybe they go with something a little more familiar, in many senses of the word. They could elect to go with a smaller type of nose tackle like Aubrayo Franklin is, and draft Sione Fua, the nose tackle out of Stanford. The very same Stanford Cardinal team that was coached by new 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. Fua could find himself in the middle of the third round, but could be around as late as the fifth. If San Francisco hasn't addressed the need by the fourth round and Fua is still on the board, I think they would be hard-pressed not to take him, with the uncertain perception of free agency going forward.
My colleague at Niners Nation, Tre9er, has his eye on Kendrick Ellis out of Hampton. He's a small school prospect, but he's got big time skills and physical abilities. If the 49ers go with a more traditional mountain of a man in the middle of their line, Ellis is a solid option who could be there in rounds 3-6, but I imagine his stock to rise and don't see him getting out of the fourth round, if he even gets into it.
The prospects listed are those I consider feasible to start from day one with proper coaching from Jim Tomsula and Vic Fangio, and beyond them someone like Anthony Gray out of Southern Miss might be coachable to a starting position at the pro level from the onset. It's a deep class at the nose tackle position, and it's really easy to see the 49ers getting on board a run of nose tackles and grabbing one as early as the third round, with or without Aubrayo Franklin under contract.