Maybe Trent Baalke is more transparent than we thought.
In his predraft news conference, the often opaque and closed-off 49ers general manager told everyone he likes big players. And that’s precisely what he got Thursday in defensive lineman Arik Armstead, who has so much size – 6-foot-7, 292 pounds – that he spent two seasons moonlighting as a basketball player at the University of Oregon.
Baalke swapped picks with the Chargers – dropping from pick No. 15 to No. 17 – before making the selection, gaining an extra fourth-round pick this year and a fifth-rounder next year in the process.
Armstead long had been rumored to the 49ers.
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San Francisco, after all, dismissed one of its long-time starters at defensive end, Ray McDonald, in December. The future of another, Justin Smith, is unknown. Smith is contemplating retirement and has not yet said whether he will return for a 15th season.
It’s also noteworthy that the 49ers coach is a long-time defensive line coach. Just as the 49ers took a quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, during former quarterback Jim Harbaugh’s first draft in 2011, the team seemed to tip its cap to Jim Tomsula by taking a defensive lineman.
Finally, Armstead fits the big-bodied, long-armed profile – his limbs stretch 33 inches– that Baalke has established in previous drafts.
But therein lies the rub with the Armstead selection. Baalke has brought in a number of defensive linemen with similar descriptions in recent years. And even though Smith and McDonald are gone, the defensive line is loaded with talented, but heretofore seldom-used, players.
Last month Tomsula said the defensive line, whether Smith returns or not, is the deepest he’s ever seen it in San Francisco. He didn’t back away from that sentiment Thursday.
“Where we’re strong, we just got stronger,” he said.
Two years ago, the 49ers used a high second-round pick on Tank Carradine and then a fifth-rounder on Quinton Dial. Both have seen scant snaps since as Smith and McDonald have received the lion’s share of the playing time at the position.
In the offseason, the team signed veteran Darnell Dockett to a free-agent deal. Other defensive linemen include Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Lawrence Okoye and Kaleb Ramsey, a seventh-round pick last year.
And that means that Armstead either will push Baalke’s previous acquisitions further down the depth chart or, more likely, will see few snaps as a rookie.
Both Baalke and Tomsula seemed to signal as much.
“There’s going to be some development to this process, but we’re well aware of that,” Baalke said.
Tomsula noted that young defensive players rarely have seen a lot of playing time in the 49ers’ defense. “There’s a lot of technique (involved) that we could sit for an hour and talk about,” he said.
But both men said a player with Armstead’s size, quickness and ability to leverage his height to his advantage was too unique to pass up and worth developing.
The 49ers want someone who can be disruptive on the defensive line. That’s where Smith excelled over the last few seasons, and it allowed the player next to him, Aldon Smith, to become one of the top pass rushers in the league.
In the run-up to the draft, some were critical that in three seasons, Armstead only had four sacks for Oregon. Armstead, however, noted that he split time between the basketball and football squads early on in Eugene and that last year he played despite a sprained ankle during the middle of the season. He also said sacks weren’t always his objective.
“My role was to be disruptive, to take on blockers, free up guys at times,” Armstead said from Sacramento. “... I put my health on the line, playing for them injured. I did whatever they asked me to do out there on the football field.”
Baalke, meanwhile, said Armstead was most disruptive at the end of the season, against Florida State and Ohio State, when his ankle had healed. And he said with more time in the weight room and with the right coaching, that progress will continue.
“They’re hard to find,” he said of players with Armstead’s size. “You need those guys to play the type of defense we play.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at sacbee.com/sf49ers.