San Francisco has only a few glaring needs in this year’s draft. The 49ers are pretty complete, but with free agency looming for Dashon Goldson, Delanie Walker and Isaac Sopoaga, there will be holes to fill at safety, tight end and defensive tackle. Randy Moss isn’t coming back and with the status of Kyle Williams’ and Mario Manningham’s injuries up in the air, wide receiver remains another position of need. Then there’s the whole issue of getting a top cornerback, or as many would refer to it, “selling their first born for one year of Darrelle Revis.”
The deadline for franchise tagging a player is today at 1 PM, and while slapping the tag on one of these players would temporarily solve a problem for the team, they have another need that won’t be solved in-house: linebacker.
In their starters, the 49ers have the best linebacking corps in the game. It’s probably why this has flown under the radar for most mock-loving fans, but few readily remember when Patrick Willis went down at the end of the 2011 season and Larry Grant proved his worth. He’s one guy who’ll probably look for a starting role elsewhere, outside of the impenetrable shadow of Willis and Bowman.
Then there’s the issue of outside linebacker — Parys Haralson will be returning from a torn triceps injury, presumably to play the role of reliever on running downs for Aldon Smith. The problem with Haralson is his cap hit: he’s earning $2.87M in 2013, an awfully high number for a guy in a backup role. Perhaps Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke envision a future of lower snap counts for Smith, limiting his role to only passing downs again. Smith played 1025 snaps in 2012 compared to 506 in ’11 and he seemed to run out of gas as the season wore on. They probably shouldn’t, though. Even with the enormous jump in both responsibility and playing time, Smith still graded out as the third-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus, scoring +7.8 against the run and -0.2 in coverage.
Smith earned a +13.5 in pass rush, second only to Clay Matthews, in case you were looking for affirmation.
Unless the 49ers want to depend on fifth round pick Darius Fleming, seventh round pick Cam Johnson or re-sign Clark Haggans, they have a need for depth at outside linebacker. It’s not to necessarily take away from the value of their 2012 class, but Fleming tore his ACL during 49ers’ minicamp last year and while Johnson was considered a late-round sleeper, his sickle cell trait is cause for concern.
Enter Chase Thomas, the latest in my thirst for Stanford Cardinal players to become 49ers. I heard chatter during my time covering Stanford last season about Thomas’ worth. Many pegged him as a first-round pick in the upcoming draft. He was widely considered to be the leader of the most fierce defense in the Pac-12, a defense known for frequently throwing a #PartyInTheBackfield. Thomas collected 64 tackles in his senior year with Stanford, including a breakout 10-tackle performance against the UCLA Bruins in the Pac-12 Championship, seven of which were solo. He had 7.5 sacks in 2012 as well, including two in the Championship game.
Surprisingly, CBS Sports has Thomas slated as a fourth round pick, and while I’ve already suggested the 49ers use some of their later picks on Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Lattimore, it wouldn’t hurt use another on the 2011 All-American. The reason for his drop may be his combine performance: he ran a 4.91 40 which certainly sticks out and his 32 1/4″ arms may be considered dinosaur-like by some.
Still, I see in Thomas what Vic Fangio sees in him: a guy who “was born to play football.” NFL.Com compares him to Connor Barwin, noting he can be “a utility defender that plays on the line of scrimmage” and “if he fails to develop into a starter, he should at the very least be a capable backup linebacker and special teams player.”
It all comes down to how much Harbaugh values his own recruits. We’ve seen the former Stanford coach pass on players like Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin, but we’ve also seen him add undrafted free agents like Michael Thomas and Chris Owusu. Starting-quality players will be available in later rounds this draft, so the question is whether Harbaalke believes Thomas could eventually supplant Ahmad Brooks as starting outside linebacker. If they do, the 49ers may just pull the trigger and take him.