Midseason report: Defense

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Midseason report: Defense

First-half storyline: The 49ers have only four defensive players back at the same starting position from a year ago. And each of the changes has been for the better. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and his staff are utilizing the pieces perfectly to form what has been the strength of the team. Three-quarters of the secondary is comprised of new starters. Cornerback Carlos Rogers has been a significant upgrade in coverage over Nate Clements, whom the 49ers released after the lockout. Tarell Brown replaced Shawntae Spencer, who remains on the roster but has been demoted to the team's fifth cornerback. And Donte Whitner has played well in the safety position occupied last season by Reggie Smith and Taylor Mays, given away in a trade to Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the 49ers might have the best front seven in the NFL. General manager Trent Baalke made all the right moves along the way. The 49ers replaced Takeo Spikes with speedy youngster NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker. And after showing little interest in retaining nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, the 49ers have improved with Isaac Sopoaga at the nose and Ray McDonald at left defensive end

MVP: Middle linebacker Patrick Willis. Again, Willis is the team's best defensive player. And as the 49ers open the second half of the season with a 7-1 record, Willis must be considered on the short list of players in serious contention for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Willis and Bowman have formed a sideline-to-sideline tackling duo unmatched in the NFL. Willis was outstanding in pass coverage, too. He also forced three fumbles and recovered two in the first eight games.Biggest surprise: Brown. He started five games in his first four seasons, and was never able to hold onto a starting job. This season, he has been solid while starting the first eight games at right cornerback. Brown registered seven passes broken up.Biggest disappointment: The 49ers experienced some injuries in the secondary that forced a bunch of different combinations early in the season. Spencer was penciled in as a starter, but he fell so far behind due to hamstring and toe injuries that, now, he does not even play. Dashon Goldson, Whitner and Tramaine Brock missed games due to injuries. Rookie Chris Culliver took advantage of the injuries to Spencer and Brock to win the job as the No. 3 corner.Best play: Justin Smith, a 285-pound defensive end who played every defensive snap in the game, preserved the 49ers' Week 4 come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Eagles with a play Fangio called, "The defensive equivalent of 'The Catch.'" Smith began the play as a pass-rusher and then hustled after speedster Jeremy Maclin. With two minutes remaining, all the Eagles needed was a field goal to take the lead. Smith caught up to Maclin and stripped him of the football at the 49ers' 31-yard line. The 49ers recovered, and they held on for a 24-23 victory, which served as a springboard for a 7-1 start and five-game lead in the NFC West.Worst play: The 49ers saw their 10-point fourth-quarter lead over the Dallas Cowboys evaporate and the teams went to overtime in Week 2 at Candlestick Park. Rogers and Whitner bit hard on Tony Romo's run fake, allowing seldom-used receiver Jesse Holley to get behind the secondary. The 77-yard pass set up the Cowboys' winning field goal, and dealt the 49ers their only loss through eight games.Key to the second half: The 49ers' front seven played a lot of snaps in the first half of the season, so they have to keep those guys from wearing down. The only non-starter who sees a lot of key snaps is rookie Aldon Smith, who leads the 49ers with 6.5 sacks. Smith must continue to generate good pressure on the quarterback in nickel situations to take heat off the 49ers' secondary.

49ers: Thomas capable of playing anywhere on D-line

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49ers: Thomas capable of playing anywhere on D-line

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers selected defensive linemen with their top picks in the final two drafts under general manager Trent Baalke.

The 49ers fired Baalke at the conclusion of the team’s 2-14 season, and new general manager John Lynch stepped into a tear-down project.

That complete rebuild began Thursday evening with Lynch’s selection of another defensive lineman. The 49ers traded back one spot and selected Solomon Thomas of Stanford with the No. 3 overall pick.

“We see a special football player, disruptive football player, who has tremendous versatility,” Lynch said. “I think he fits in with the current group that we have because he’s a little different than the guys we have. And when I think of Solomon, I think of speed and quickness and disruption.”

The 49ers expect to play more of an aggressive, attacking style of defense under first-year coordinator Robert Saleh. Perhaps, the team’s biggest need is at the “Leo” position, the weak side end that is considered more of a pass-rusher.

Thomas appears better-suited at the other end or at a defensive tackle position, but the 49ers are keeping an open mind about using him at nearly every spot along the defensive line in the team’s new 4-3 scheme.

“There are four defensive linemen and what’s intriguing about Solomon is he has the ability to play all four of them,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “That’s what makes him so unique. That’s why I think John says he’s a little bit different than some of the guys we have, because you can move him around. He has the quickness and speed to play on the outside. He has enough sides to play on the inside, so you don’t want to put him in one spot.

“We don’t think he has to be one specific role. Obviously, he is a defensive lineman, but there’s four spots he can play at and I think that’s going to depend on down and distance, whether we’re expecting run, whether we’re expecting pass and the type of personnel we’re going against.”

49ers 'ecstatic' with first-day haul in the 2017 NFL Draft

49ers 'ecstatic' with first-day haul in the 2017 NFL Draft

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers began Thursday with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.

When his first day as 49ers general manager reached its conclusion, John Lynch had selected two of the three top players on his draft board and picked up additional third-round picks for this year and next year.

After Myles Garrett, the 49ers’ top-rated prospect, was the Cleveland Browns’ selection at No. 1 overall, the 49ers traded back one spot with the Chicago Bears. The 49ers still got their No. 2-rated prospect, Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas.

The 49ers started making calls to teams with selections in the teens, according to coach Kyle Shanahan, to inquire about trading up for Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. The 49ers finally worked out a deal with the Seattle Seahawks to move up three spots to No. 31.

The 49ers selected Foster one spot ahead of the New Orleans Saints, who were apparently ready to select Foster with the No. 32 pick.

Said Lynch, "Reuben thought that because we were at 34, we made a trade at the end with Seattle and when I was talking to him, he said, ‘Coach, New Orleans is taking me.' And I said, ‘No, we’re taking you.’ It was hard because it happened late in the process and so, he was really excited when he found out that we had pulled off that trade and we were certainly very excited.”

And all the 49ers gave up to make the necessary move was a fourth-round pick acquired from the Bears earlier in the day.

The 49ers got everything the could have ever wanted from Day 1 of the draft.

“In terms of how we rated them, we got two of our top three players,” Lynch said. “We’re thrilled. We’re ecstatic. I think these guys have traits that encompass what we want to be about as a football organization.”

Lynch said he began speaking with Bears general manager Ryan Pace more than a week ago. Because the 49ers had picks scheduled next to the Bears in every round, Pace suggested to Lynch that the two teams should be willing to work with each other throughout the draft.

The 49ers had other offers for the No. 2 pick, Lynch said. A source told NBC Sports Bay Area just prior to the start of the draft that the 49ers had fielded three solid offers.

The team’s chief strategy officer Paraag Marathe worked out the details to finalize the trade with the Bears.

The 49ers did not know which player the Bears were targeting at No. 2, but Shanahan voiced his opinion while the trade was going down.

“This guy is a pretty bright,” Lynch said of Shanahan. “He said, ‘That’s not for a defensive lineman. That’s for a quarterback.’ And he was right.”

The Bears made the trade to select North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick. In order for the Bears to trade up one spot, they delivered the 49ers a third-round pick (No. 67), a fourth-round pick (No. 111) and a third-round pick next year.

Jacksonville executive Tom Coughlin, whose team held the No. 4 pick, watched and admired the 49ers' move from afar. 

"To get what you had in mind right off the bat and pick up those extra picks? Pretty nice deal," Coughlin told Jacksonville reporters. "I’ve never seen one of those. . . Oh, my gosh. Nothing like that has ever come my way.”

When asked if the 49ers would have selected Foster if the Bears selected Thomas, Lynch said, “Perhaps. It was very likely.”

Instead, the 49ers waited and waited and waited before finding a trade partner in an unlikely place. The 49ers made a deal with Seattle, giving up the 111th pick obtained from Chicago, to select Foster before the Saints had a chance.

“He’s my kind of player,” Lynch said of Foster. “He plays sideline to sideline, and he’ll hit anything that moves. I think that’s contagious for teammates.”

Foster is recovering from shoulder surgery and his stock was negatively affected by character concerns. He was sent home from the NFL scouting combine after an argument with a hospital worker during his medical check. He also had a positive drug test due to a diluted urine sample.

Lynch spent a lot of time with Foster during his visit to Santa Clara, as well as a meeting him at the combine. Both Lynch and Shanahan spoke regularly with Foster on the phone and on FaceTime in the past few weeks.

The 49ers also dispatched vice president of football affairs Keena Turner and team chaplain Earl Smith to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to meet with Foster for two days. The team will have a plan in place to help guide Foster as he transitions to professional football, Lynch said.

“I would tell you that his character is what drew us to him,” Lynch said. “When you start talking football with this young man, he lights up a room. He’s a good kid. I believe in the kid. I think he’ll be a great player for this organization for a long time.”