The Case For Drafting A Defensive Lineman Early: 49ers Need Justin Smith's Replacement

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 14: Justin Smith #94 of the San Francisco 49ers hovers over Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints after Brees was sacked in the third quarter of the NFC Divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park on January 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The San Francisco 49ers have the best defense in the NFL, on the back of a strong group of linebackers. But it wouldn't be nearly as good is Justin Smith wasn't in the mix - so the 49ers should look to the future at that position sooner rather than later. For more on the team, check out Niners Nation.

If I told you that there was a mock draft out there that didn't have the San Francisco 49ers selecting Coby Fleener or Stephen Hill with the No. 30 pick, would you believe me? Of course you would, but that's only due to the fact that the internet hemorrhages mock drafts out the wazoo (which is traditionally where things hemorrhage out of), and not because it's a popular opinion whatsoever.

Well, there's an interesting and compelling (I like superfluous and meaningless phrases - see!) pick in one recent mock draft, and the shocking bit is that it's from ESPN! Todd McShay's Mock Draft 5.0 takes a look at different scenarios for each team, which is a little bit different from the norm, but also makes the traditional pick. It's a good format, and much more readable at this point, given how monotonous the drafts have become for readers.

Anyway, we'll skip over all the other teams that we don't care about because they're not the 49ers, and just list what he has going on for San Francisco. He's got them taking Kendall Reyes, defensive tackle out of Connecticut. However, he has Reyes as the fourth-best scenario for the 49ers:

Scenario 1: San Francisco would love to see Hill drop to this spot and add a dynamic weapon to the passing game.

Scenario 2: Trade out. Defensive linemen such as Ta'amu and Clemson's Brandon Thompson are not worth the pick, but moving back could allow the Niners to fill a need position with a better value, perhaps Zeitler, Silatolu or a 3-4 defensive lineman.

Scenario 3: They could elect to go with the best defender available, meaning they might get comfortable with Jenkins or look to McClellin to bring some pass-rush help opposite Aldon Smith.

Scenario 4: Reyes might not appear on the surface to be the best fit, but he's a smart, versatile player who can pick up the system quickly and inject some youth into an aging defensive front.

That first scenario is one that we've started to see a lot - in fact, it's the second-most popular option behind the drafting of Coby Fleener (even if our own Dylan DeSimone believes that neither of them are the best choices). It's also note-worthy that Fleener isn't mentioned at all by McShay for the first round, which is an anomaly. I don't believe the 49ers will go after Fleener, for what it's worth - the whole "Jim Harbaugh coached at Stanford which is where .. let me do the math ... OH MY GOODNESS, THAT'S WHERE FLEENER PLAYS! BREAKTHROUGH! PUBLISH THE MOCK DRAFT!" shtick.

At any rate, Hill ended up going to the Houston Texans at No. 26, so then they moved on to the second option: trading out. McShay notes that trading out would be a good option, and it might be a good option. After all, the 49ers aren't needing to replace any starting roles for the most part and should be going for the best player available to load up their roster (as our own Tre Faaborg notes in this rousing piece) - if they don't think anybody at the spot they deem worth at No. 30, they can move back a bit, pick up an extra fourth-round pick, and see what damage they can do in the later rounds.

Scenario three is definitely interesting, mostly due to the fact that Jenkins is mentioned -- adding a cornerback is an attractive option, at least to this writer. You can never have too many of them, and the 49ers would probably be just fine taking him there.

But it's scenario four, the one that the 49ers ultimately settle with in this mock, that intrigues this writer the most. The 49ers' defensive line is often overlooked as an area of potential need, but that's mostly because Justin Smith remains the absolute best in the league at what he does. But despite the fact that Smith hasn't slowed down yet and still plays every snap the team will let him, he is getting up there in years.

The line seems younger than it is because they've got two "new" starters in Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga - and while the two gave very inspiring performances in their new roles in 2011, they're not Justin Smith. We're at a point where there's tons of high potential defensive ends going in the drafts, and if they don't get a guy like Reyes, there's still a number of options available.

Maybe there won't be one worth the pick at 30, and the 49ers absolutely shouldn't draft solely on need, but .. every BPA is still based somewhat in need. San Francisco is a team with a dominant defense, best personified by its strong group of linebackers, who wouldn't seem as good as they are if they didn't have someone like Justin Smith in front of them.

Well, the 49ers need a new Justin Smith.

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