Why the 49ers passed on edge rushers in the draft

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Arguably, the San Francisco 49ers entered the 2018 NFL draft with no greater need than a dynamic edge rusher.

And yet, when the three days were over, the Niners spent none of their nine picks on the position despite pre-draft time studying this year's crop.

So, general manager John Lynch, what gives?

“Those guys are difficult to find, first and foremost," Lynch said. "We felt like there were a couple guys who had an opportunity to be special there. You know, just where we were, we didn't have an opportunity or chose not to take them."

That decision came as a bit of a surprise given the Niners' struggles to consistently generate an outside pass rush. Sure, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has been able to push the pocket, but without a dominant edge rusher at the "Leo" position, quarterbacks often have been able to sidestep Buckner and get rid of the ball.

In 2017, the 49ers finished tied for 26th in the NFL in sacks (30), and they have not had a player post more than 8.5 sacks in a season since 2012. In the past three seasons, the Niners have combined for 91 sacks, which is 29th in the NFL in that span.

Of course, identifying that as a problem hasn't been an issue. Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh have all pointed out the need to improve at edge rusher. It's fixing the problem that has been an issue.

Because of the value of the position, teams simply don't let top edge rushers hit the free-agent market. Which means teams must look to the draft to find their man.

Last year, the Niners had the second pick, but only Myles Garrett profiled as a true edge rusher worthy of that selection. He was the No. 1 pick in the draft to the Cleveland Browns.

This year, the 49ers didn't have a pick until No. 9 and once again found themselves in pass-rusher no man's land. North Carolina State's Bradley Chubb was the consensus best pass-rusher in the draft, and he went No. 5 to the Denver Broncos. The Niners could have drafted Texas San Antonio's Marcus Davenport or Boston College's Harold Landry, but both would have been considered a reach at No. 9.

"The worst position in the draft is pass-rushers, be it defensive end or be it outside linebacker," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said before the draft. "It’s just a terrible position.

"There’s just not that defined first- or second-round pass-rusher outside of Bradley Chubb, and he’s in a league of his own."

The league seemed to agree with Kiper's assessment, as Chubb and Davenport were the only two outside rushers to go in the first round. From there, only two more went in the second round, before teams began attempting to strike gold in rounds 3 through 7.

As that was happening, the Niners found themselves in position to jump in the fray. But when it came down to making a pick, they didn't see a player who provided an obvious upgrade over players already on the roster, including Cassius Marsh, Jerry Attaochu, Eli Harold and Arik Armstead.

“We have some pretty good players," Shanahan said. "Yeah, we'd love to add whoever the best pass-rusher is on the outside in the draft. We'd love to get a Von Miller, but you only get eight up on game day and you only get nine on our roster. So, you just keep drafting rushers. You've got to be pretty good to beat out Marsh. You’ve got to be pretty good to beat out Armstead.

"You don't just get guys. If you get them, someone else has got to get cut, and we’ve got a pretty good group.”

While that might not be what 49ers fans want to hear, given the lack of production from the returning group, it was certainly music to the ears of someone like Marsh, who has bounced between three teams and has never posted more than three sacks in his four years in the league. Without any significant additions in the draft, Marsh is poised to finally get steady playing time in his fifth season.

Upon hearing Shanahan's comments, Marsh went to social media to express his gratitude for the opportunity.

Still, for the Niners to take a step forward in 2018 defensively, it will take a collective effort. If things don't look much better early on, they could bring back veteran Elvis Dumervil, a possibility Lynch already has acknowledged.

And if all of that isn't enough, next year's draft could yield what the 49ers are looking for. In many of the way-too-early mock drafts for 2019, outside pass-rushers could be in far greater abundance than they've been the past two years.

For now, the Niners are betting big on what they have.

"We believe there's opportunity," Lynch said. "Part of this deal is you have to develop your own talent, so we believe that collectively we've got to get better as a unit. We've got to become better finishers. We believe we have that right within. Were we adverse to adding to it? Not at all. That's just kind of the way the draft fell.

"We're always looking to get better at every position. But we do believe there's great room for growth with the guys we have, and that's got to come alive. That's a challenge to them, it’s a challenge to our coaches and it's a challenge to all of us. That's what this game is all about.”