49ers NFL Draft preview: Team with many needs could target top defenders
John Lynch on Wednesday painted a picture of what the 49ers’ general manager and the team are seeking at the free-safety position. The picture looked a lot like Earl Thomas.
“And it doesn’t mean that we’re looking for a 5-9, 195-pound guy that Earl is, but we’re looking for some of those traits,” Lynch said of the Seattle safety. “It’s a credit to Earl. He’s put it out there that this is the profile that you’re looking for when you’re playing this scheme. We’re going to make this scheme our own scheme and we’re going to have some wrinkles that they don’t have, but that position’s pretty defined as to what the standard is and I think he’s done a fine job.”
The free-safety role, especially in the Seattle-like system the 49ers will run this year, is an essential one. The player must be aggressive, instinctual and able to cover a lot of ground in the back half of the defense. That allows his counterpart, the strong safety, to play closer to the line of scrimmage and act at times as an extra linebacker.
Thomas has played the role perfectly since he was drafted 14th overall in 2010. He’s broken up 56 passes, intercepted 23 others and has been voted to five Pro Bowls. His efficiency in pass protection has been one of the keys to the Seahawks’ aggressive, suffocating defense.
As it stands now, the 49ers have only one player on the roster, Jimmie Ward, capable of playing the position. Lynch on Wednesday wouldn’t commit to having Ward, who played cornerback last season, as his starting free safety, but said Ward definitely would get a chance to fill that role.
Lynch said starting cornerback Tramaine Brock’s dismissal last week following a domestic abuse charge did not mean the 49ers now want Ward at cornerback.
“I think the automatic assumption is with what happened here in the last week that maybe we’d change and redirect,” Lynch said. “No. I think we’re going to do what we think’s best for our team, and Jimmie, I think, provides a unique versatility and we’re going to try to take advantage of that.”
As far as the draft, the 49ers have brought in Washington’s Budda Baker, who has drawn frequent comparisons to Thomas because of their similar skills and statures. (Lynch was a bit off on Thomas. He was 5-foot-10, 208 pounds when he was coming out of college. Baker measured 5-10, 195 pounds at last month’s combine).
Baker had a team-high 71 tackles last season, as well as two interceptions and six pass breakups.
Not surprisingly, Baker said he likes to watch Thomas play.
“Whatever he is doing, he is always next to the ball (and) wreaking havoc,” he said at the combine. “So (I watch) Earl Thomas, and I watch (Cardinals safety) Tyrann Mathieu because of his versatility; he can play corner, nickel or safety, and he has been playing that.”
The other top-ranked free safety in the draft is Ohio State’s Malik Hooker, whose seven interceptions last season tied for second-most in college football. He has better size (6-1, 206 pounds) than Baker but has not been part of any pre-draft workouts as he recovers from injuries this offseason.
There have been no reports of Hooker, a possible Top 10 pick, visiting the 49ers. Baker is considered a second-day selection.