Colin Kaepernick

49ers’ top draft target (hint: it’s probably not quarterback)

The 49ers’ offense was the worst in the league in several respects, and for that reason many are expecting they’ll either figure out a way to add Chip Kelly’s quarterback from last year (Sam Bradford) or take the local kid (Jared Goff) with the seventh overall pick in the NFL Draft.

Those are both possibilities, but expecting Trent Baalke to focus on offense first is almost like expecting Russell Wilson to release a sex tape (that joke narrowly beat out “expecting Johnny Manziel to stay away from Vegas,” in case you were wondering). Baalke knows his strengths, and if Kelly either convinces him to acquire Bradford or keep Colin Kaepernick, he’ll be more than happy to tap into his comfort zone when it comes time to make his first draft selection.

(FWIW: When Baalke was asked at the combine whether he expected Kaepernick to be on the roster in 2016, he said, “Absolutely. Yeah.”)

And even though the 49ers’ offense was historically dismal in 2015, here are the top 10 reasons for Baalke to feel confident that it will improve significantly in 2016.

  1. Chip Kelly > Jim Tomsula (Geep Chryst)
  2. The 49ers seem to believe Blaine Gabbert is Alex Smith 2.0.
  3. Anthony Davis insists he is returning.
  4. Trent Brown showed flashes of adequacy bordering on quality at the end of the season.
  5. Carlos Hyde *should* be healthy.
  6. Baalke did a decent job finding backup running backs on the cheap in Shaun Draughn and DuJuan Harris.
  7. They just extended Garrett Celek.
  8. Blake Bell could make a significant leap in his second year.
  9. Vance McDonald started making plays once Gabbert took over.
  10. DeAndre Smelter *should* be healthy.

Considering Baalke’s potential (over)confidence in the offense — and Kelly’s offense requiring defensive depth since their snap numbers will surely increase — I would expect bolstering the team’s meager pass rush to be his first priority this offseason for the following reasons.

— Denver led the NFL in sacks, obliterated Tom Brady and Cam Newton, and won the Super Bowl.

— The top nine teams in the NFL in sacks all made the playoffs (other than Detroit, which tied Cincinnati for ninth place with 42).

— The 49ers finished 29th with just 28 sacks, with Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks (who was pretty terrible overall) tying for the team lead with 6.5 each.

— San Francisco’s secondary (which is young and deeper than most think) would look so much better playing behind a stronger set of pass rushers.

Granted, things can change based on free agency. The market is impossible to control, even for teams with tens of millions in cap space like the 49ers, and they’ll probably try to sign a veteran offensive lineman as well as a pass rusher. Bruce Irvin is the name that gets mentioned most often as a potential target, but the 49ers could also go after Olivier Vernon or Malik Jackson (and pay an incredible amount for either player), or even Jason Pierre-Paul. Jaye Howard is another player Baalke might like. Tamba Hali and William Hayes are potential buy-low options due to age. If Baalke signs Greg Hardy, we know that he has gone mad with power and should probably be quarantined.

Free agent pass rushers are sure to be expensive, thanks to the Broncos’ overwhelming success with a mediocre quarterback and running backs and the number of teams in need. But the 49ers don’t like to overpay players and that’s what they’ll need to do to attract the top defensive talent — as long as Kelly is in charge of the offense, anyway. That brings us to the draft, where Baalke could decide to add a pass rusher who won’t cost as much and can join a young core that would also include Lynch and Arik Armstead, with recently-extended Quinton Dial handling inside duties.

If they love UCLA linebacker/part-time running back Myles Jack (Baalke bonus: he only played three games in 2015 due to a torn meniscus) and he’s available at No. 7, all bets are off. (Although I wonder if Baalke might like the potential of Gerald Hodges as a long-term starter alongside NaVorro Bowman.)

However, I believe their most likely move at No. 7 is to select an outside linebacker or a pass-rushing defensive end.

DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon: He’d make an awful lot of sense, especially since he worked well with Armstead in college. Like Armstead, he’s strong and enormous (6’7″, 290). Unlike Armstead, the 2015 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year was able to get to the quarterback in college (10.5 sacks).

Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State: Went from 21 sacks in his first two seasons to just 5 in his junior season, but he can also play the run.

Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Eastern Kentucky: Off-the-field concerns (several failed drug tests, arrest in 2015 for public intoxication) could deter Baalke. Or not. Baalke seems to be attracted to players from the top conferences in the first round, but Spence did start his collegiate career at Ohio State and registered 7.5 sacks there in his sophomore year (2013) before coming through with 22.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks for the Colonels. He reportedly looked great on the field during Senior Bowl week, but didn’t interview well.

Leonard Floyd, 3-4 OLB, Georgia: Played inside linebacker at times last season and may be a little too light (around 230) for Baalke’s taste, especially considering Eli Harold’s difficulties during his rookie season. 

Buckner and Bosa could be off the board before No. 7. Baalke could hope that either one falls to him, attempt to trade down, or go with someone currently slotted to go lower in the first round that he likes more than draft “experts” (guys like Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd out of Clemson). Or, they could select inside linebacker Jaylon Smith out of Notre Dame, who tore his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl. Smith would be the most decorated member of Baalke’s “Team ACL” yet, and after making the pick Baalke could point to Rams running back Todd Gurley, who was a top-10 selection who went on to become Rookie of the Year. But Smith wouldn’t be ready until midseason at the earliest.

Whether it’s through free agency or the draft, expect Baalke to address the team’s pass rush. His dream scenario — a defense that rules the line of scrimmage and forces opposing quarterbacks into mistakes — was proven to be a successful formula during Denver’s postseason run. Now it’s up to Baalke to find the next Von Miller or DeMarcus Ware (or Aldon/Justin Smith, if you prefer).

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