San Francisco 49ers

49ers' best draft fits: First up, ‘Leo’ defensive end

Florida State defensive end Josh Sweat (9) could be a candidate for the 49ers' "leo" position during this year's NFL draft.
Florida State defensive end Josh Sweat (9) could be a candidate for the 49ers' "leo" position during this year's NFL draft. AP file

This item is part of a series on the positions the 49ers will look to fill in the upcoming draft and the players that best fit those spots. They will be published in order of need.

The No. 1 position: 'Leo' or 'Elephant' defensive end

Description: This spot goes to the best pass rusher on the defense. Because the player lines up on the weak side (mostly the right side of the defense), the "elephant" usually doesn't have to worry about double teams, but he must be able to beat the opposition's best offensive lineman, the left tackle. Contrary to the name, the "elephant" doesn't have to be a big player, but usually is the most athletic member of the defensive front line. Charles Haley, Rickey Jackson and Chris Doleman all have played the spot for the 49ers. Haley was 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds at the time. The 49ers drafted only one player, Pita Taumoepenu, at the position last year. General manager John Lynch said Taumoepenu, who was 6-1 and 243 pounds at the time of the draft, was a little smaller than ideal. But the 49ers liked his traits. “You need someone with great speed and you need someone with relentless effort,” Lynch said. Taumoepenu also had a 6.91-second time in the three-cone drill at the combine in 2017, the second-fastest for an edge player that year.

Who's there now: The 49ers have plenty of candidates for the spot but no obvious solutions. Arik Armstead played there on base downs in 2017 before he got hurt. He had 1 1/2 sacks in six games and – at this point, at least – is not signed for next season. Cassius Marsh has the relentlessness factor the 49ers covet. At bare minimum, he will be someone who can provide good depth at the spot. Newcomer Jeremiah Attaochu looks excellent on paper but had trouble holding onto the same spot with the Los Angeles Chargers. The 49ers will give Eli Harold, heretofore a strong-side linebacker, a chance to play the "Leo" this offseason. But his five sacks in three NFL seasons don't signal he's the dominant pass rusher the team covets. All of which suggests that if the 49ers truly are going to upgrade the position, they must do so with an early pick. If they don't, they likely will be throwing another middling player into an already crowded position at which no one stands out.

Best fits:

▪ Bradley Chubb, N.C. State – He's big, powerful and relentless, and would be a perfect fit at the position. Like Myles Garrett a year ago, however, there's little chance Chubb makes it to the 49ers at pick No. 9.

▪ Marcus Davenport, UT San Antonio – He also has excellent size and leans heavily on strength and power, not finesse, when it comes to the pass rush. Davenport's level of competition, however, was not ideal and he rushed out of a two-point stance. The 49ers not only attended his pro day, they virtually conducted it.

▪ Harold Landry, Boston College – He looked like the best pass rusher in the nation as a junior but petered out during an injury-riddled senior season. Landry has nice quickness, but scouts question his strength and power.

▪ Arden Key, LSU – If the pick were based solely on ability and potential, Key would be a great selection. However, he has all sorts of red flags, including sitting out four months at LSU last year for what the school called personal reasons. Considering the 49ers' early headaches with Reuben Foster, it's hard to see them using an early pick on another risky player.

▪ Josh Sweat, Florida State – He was the nation's top recruit, one who drew comparisons to Jadeveon Clowney, before suffering a bad knee injury as a high school senior. Sweat's workout performances suggest he's finally recovered from that gruesome injury, but his numbers on the field never were that of a dominant pass rusher. He had 12 1/2 sacks over the last two seasons. The 49ers conducted a private workout with Sweat.

Others: Sam Hubbard, Ohio State; Dorance Armstrong, Kansas; Kemoko Turay, Rutgers; Kylie Fitts, Utah; Jeff Holland, Auburn.

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