New 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula and defensive end Justin Smith have a good relationship, having worked together since Smith came over from the Bengals for the 2008 season.
So when the two of them get together soon to discuss Smith’s future – or, as Tomsula told reporters, to “shoot the baloney” – it will have an enormous impact on what the Niners do in the draft and free agency.
If Smith decides to retire, the 49ers suddenly will have gaping holes at both defensive end spots. Smith’s departure would follow the release of Ray McDonald because of off-the-field issues.
And, Tomsula told the media at the NFL Combine in recent days that the 49ers are sticking with the 3-4 defensive alignment – and not switching to the 4-3 as had been surmised by some.
“The schematics on defense, the 3-4, our personnel is set for that and we’ll continue that way,” Tomsula said.
If Smith decides to walk away, the 49ers might be tempted to use their top pick in the first round – the 15th overall – on a defensive lineman or outside linebacker to fit the 3-4 scheme. Even if Smith stays, the team will need to add depth at some point because of McDonald’s departure. But if Smith also goes, the 49ers’ will have a gaping need – unless the 49ers are confident they can fill those positions from within.
Nose tackles Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey should return from injury in 2015 to add versatility, and Dorsey has played outside some in the 3-4 in San Francisco. Also, Tank Carradine – a second-round pick in 2013 -- or Tony Jerod-Eddie may be ready to step in. General manager Trent Baalke also noted that Kaleb Ramsey, a seventh-round pick from Boston College in 2014, would be in the mix.
The other option for the 3-4 – if the 49ers believe it’s their most pressing need in the first round -- is to add a pass rusher at outside linebacker. San Francisco’s pass rush was disappointing in 2014, so such college defensive ends/outside linebackers as Florida’s Dante Fowler, Missouri’s Shane Ray, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, UCLA’s Shaq Thompson and Clemson’s Vic Beasley might be attractive in the first or second rounds.
Fowler had 8½ sacks and 15 tackles for loss for the Gators this past season, and is projected as a first-round pick, perhaps somewhere in the middle where the 49ers will pick. At Florida, he played in both 3-4 and 4-3 sets as either a defensive end or outside linebacker.
“I played all over the place,” he told reporters. Fowler, who is 6-foot-3 and 261 pounds, ran a 4.61 40-yard dash, just behind the 40s of Beasley (4.53) and Gregory (4.57).
Though wide receiver is seen by most as the No. 1 need for the 49ers in this draft, addressing holes on the defensive line and pass rush also are crucial. As former Bengals head coach Sam Wyche told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat recently, the Niners have a big need there.
“You need a dominating pass rusher, somebody they’ve got to slide the line to, they’ve got to chip, they’ve got to move their tight end over to help block. It could be a down lineman or it could be a linebacker if he’s coming off the edge.”