The 49ers have three recent first-round draft picks among their starting offensive line. But only DeForest Buckner, the No. 7 overall pick in 2016, has consistently played at a high level.
Arik Armstead, chosen No. 17 in 2015, has struggled to stay healthy and find his niche. And Solomon Thomas, whom the 49ers grabbed last year at No. 3, admittedly did too much thinking and never felt completely comfortable during his rookie season.
The 49ers will need each of their first-round picks to play like, well, first-round picks if the defense is going to take a step forward this season.
DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Earl Mitchell, Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair, Cassius Marsh, Sheldon Day, Jeremiah Attaochu, D.J. Jones, Kentavius Street, Jullian Taylor, Blaine Woodson, Niles Scott
Best Of The Bunch
Buckner led the NFL with 19 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus, but it translated to just three sacks. He spent the offseason working on improving his closing burst to find that “extra step.” Buckner is the most talented player on the team. Eventually, he will become the highest-paid defensive player in franchise history. He could be ready for a monster season as a run-stuffer, as well as the team’s best pass-rusher.
San Francisco 49ers
Top Camp Battle
Marsh vs. Attaochu. The competition for the edge rusher spot in the 49ers’ nickel defense is one of the more intriguing battles to watch during the course of training camp. After all, the 49ers’ biggest concern at the opening of camp is how, exactly, they will be able to generate any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The 49ers’ top sack artist from last season, veteran Elvis Dumervil, remains a free agent after the 49ers declined to pick up his option. Marsh made a good impression after the 49ers claimed him off waivers when the New England Patriots cut him. Marsh has just six career sacks in four NFL seasons, but two came in six games last season with the 49ers. Attaochu, 25, had six sacks in 2015, but he saw his play time dwindle with the Chargers, who had Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram ahead of him on the depth chart.
Taylor’s stock fell due to injury issues in college. He sustained a torn ACL in college and missed almost all of the 2015 and ’16 seasons. The 49ers grabbed the Temple product in the seventh and final found of the draft. Taylor has good size and strength, and he could make his mark on run downs. While the 49ers are certainly looking for help with their pass rush, Taylor’s forte is clogging holes on early downs to set up third-and-longs. If he performs well in the exhibition season, the 49ers would be taking a gamble by trying to sneak him through to the practice squad.
Thomas will start at the 49ers’ pass-rush end position, known as the “Leo.” Armstead, who initially lined up in that spot there a year ago, is a better fit at the big end. Mitchell, an eight-year veteran, is coming off a solid, 16-start season at nose tackle. Buckner is the centerpiece of the defense and will rarely come off the field. But this unit will ultimately be judged by how it performs on third downs. Nobody currently under contract had more than three sacks last season, and that is a major concern – the 49ers' biggest concern – at the opening of training camp. Blair, entering his third NFL season, is one player who can take a big step and earn a role in the team’s nickel defense. A hand injury limited him to just six games last season, and he recorded two sacks during that time.