Alex Smith

Do the 49ers HAVE to draft a pass rusher first?

First off, let me preface the following unsolicited draft advice with this: while on my trip to Montreal I read Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side, the book detailing the story of Ole Miss left tackle Michael Oher, who’s been projected as a first round pick in Saturday’s NFL Draft. It’s an outstanding read, especially when Lewis delves into how Bill Walsh’s offense changed the NFL from a running to a passing league, in the process transitioning offensive lineman from anonymous nobodies to highly paid assets, left tackles in particular. While the book is mostly about Oher getting adopted by a wealthy white family after a nightmarish childhood scarred by homelessness and nearly unimaginable poverty, it’s also about sackmasters like Lawrence Taylor, Chris Doleman or Dwight Freeney, and the steps offenses have taken to protect the quarterback’s blind side. Ever since Charles Haley was deemed too crazy for the 49ers (which made him just right for the Cowboys), Niner fans have been thirsting for a quarterback-chasing hellraiser like LT or Doleman (who they actually did pick up, but not until he was 42 or something). Manny Lawson was drafted in the first round for that purpose, but between injuries Lawson has seen his greatest success covering tight ends and blocking punts.

So now the prevailing wisdom for the 49ers seems to be, “Go out and draft the best pass rusher available at No. 10, regardless of what drugs are coursing through his veins, his tendency to take plays off or the crappiness of the teams he faced in college.” And it’s true that the 49ers were pretty awful when it came to pressuring the quarterback throughout the Mike Nolan era, forcing their mid-level secondaries to perform like they were Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson and Dwight Hicks — with middling results.

Last year, the 49ers sacked opposing quarterbacks 30 times, tying them for 16th in the NFL. In other words, the 49ers were right in the middle of the league in terms of quarterback pressure, although they probably would have been right at the bottom without the recently re-signed Parys Haralson, who collected 8 sacks in part-time duty.

Conversely, the 49ers gave up a whopping 55 sacks last season, worst in the league. That’s right, even worse than the winless Detroit Lions, who allowed 52. Part of the 49ers’ sack problems were due to J.T. O’Sullivan waiting nine seconds to throw the ball, but Shaun Hill was sacked 23 times in 8.5 games last season, which accounts to 2.7 times sacked per game. Prorate the times Hill ended up on his back with the ball for a full season, and the 49ers would have given up 43 sacks, a number that still would have tied them for 7th-worst in the NFL last season with Minnesota.

Still not convinced the 49ers need help in the offensive line? Their only move to shore up the O-Line during the offseason was signing Marvel Smith, an injury-prone tackle (15 games missed over the past two seasons due to back pain, an ailment that tends not to go away completely) the team hopes will replace their old injury-prone tackle, Jonas Jennings. Left tackle Joe Staley gave up 8.5 sacks last season (proving that the draft-day trade with the Patriots to get Staley was a terrible trade…not Nathan/Liriano/Bonser for Pierzynski bad, but close). So the 49ers have one tackle who will be lucky to play half the season, and another who is only protecting Shaun Hill’s blind side by default.

There are currently four offensive tackles who are locks to be chosen in the first round, and three pass-rushing DE/OLB’s in the same category. Two of the tackles (Baylor’s Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe out of Virginia) look to be gone before the Niners draft at No. 10. One of the pass rushers should be gone as well (former Texas Longhorn Brian Orakpo). The Packers, who draft one spot ahead of San Francisco, are rumored to be looking for a pass rusher themselves.

So it looks likely the 49ers will be choosing from a five-man group of Oher, OT Andre Smith, NT B.J. Raji and DE’s Everette Brown and Aaron Maybin. Andre Smith went awol during the combine and the 49ers already have an A. Smith, so he’s out. Ditto Raji and his rumored Michael Phelps-like tendency to hit the bong with passion and intensity.

Taking Brown or Maybin wouldn’t be such a bad thing, although Maybin gained a ton of weight after the end of the regular season — always a red flag. Any draft-day scenario where the 49ers don’t take Mark Sanchez is positive, especially for a team who’s “Plan A” was signing Kurt Warner. That’s why I’m going to have to hope is correct and the 49ers select Oher. He makes sense for the 49ers in several ways, here’s ten of them:

1. Oher’s a Born Again Christian who, with the help of his adopted family, saved his life from the depths of Memphis-project despair (that sound you heard was Mike Singletary yelling “Amen”). He went from illiterate to graduating from Ole Miss in four years, and by all accounts has worked his ass off in college after learning the position of offensive tackle during his junior year of high school.

2. He’s a decent run blocker, but pass blocking is his strength. The 49ers are even worse at blocking pass rushers than they are at rushing the passer themselves. Seems like a good fit.

3. He’s great friends with fellow Ole Miss alum and ex-teammate Patrick Willis, the best player and hardest worker on the Niners.

4. The 49ers have had Oher on their radar for years with Lewis working the team’s history into The Blind Side as often as humanly possible (including some great stuff on former Niner left tackles John Ayers and Steve Wallace). Lewis even thanked Paraag Marathe for all his help in the notes at the end of the book. They’re already filming a movie about Oher, for God’s sake, a movie starring Tim McGraw as Sean Touhy, his adopted father! The PR possibilites are endless with Oher, and when’s the last time you said that about a highly drafted offensive tackle?

5. None of the top available pass rushers are really that great; it’s not like any of them had 15 sacks in 2008 or anything. We aren’t talking about future LT’s here when it comes to Maybin or Brown, we’re talking about future Parys Haralsons.

6. The 49ers are one Shaun Hill injury and some Alex Smith shoulder pain away from Damon Huard starting a majority of the team’s games. The thought of that scares me so much, I think a little pee just came out.

7. None of the top receivers will be available when the 49ers pick and choosing a quarterback like Sanchez (if he’s even around at No. 10) won’t help the 49ers win now. Singletary can’t afford to wait two-to-three years for a QB to develop.

8. Trading the pick to Cleveland for Brady Quinn would be better than picking Sanchez, but did you SEE Derek Anderson last year? The Browns would have been better off with the Derek Anderson who used to be an NBA shooting guard. I doubt even Eric Mangini would be willing to give up Quinn unless Matthew Stafford somehow fell to the tenth pick — not happening.

9. Barry Sims is still on the roster. If that doesn’t tell you O-line depth is a huge need in San Francisco, I don’t know what does.

10. Of any position to draft highly in the first round, offensive tackle has traditionally been the one with the fewest busts. This year’s draft is a rare one that is stocked with good OT’s. Why not get one? Why not Oher?

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