San Francisco 49ers

49ers’ once-flush defensive line must be restocked

Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner (44) breaks through the offensive line during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Eastern Washington Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Eugene, Ore.
Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner (44) breaks through the offensive line during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Eastern Washington Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Eugene, Ore. AP

The scouting combine begins next week, and the 49ers will be busy. They are projected to have a league-high 12 picks and could use help at just about every position. We’ll look at every spot on the team as well as which college prospects might fit with the 49ers.

Defensive line

Need level: high

Under contract: Arik Armstead, Quinton Dial, Glenn Dorsey, Mike Purcell, Kaleb Ramsey, Garrison Smith

THE SITUATION

It wasn’t long ago that defensive line was the deepest position on the 49ers’ roster. But Ray McDonald was cut, Justin Smith retired, Dorsey tore his ACL and Tank Carradine was converted to a quasi outside linebacker.

Now it’s a rail-thin group, especially when you consider how important defensive depth will be on a Chip Kelly-coached team. The flip side of his fast-paced offense in Philadelphia: His defenses were on the field more than any other over the last three seasons, and those units ranked 28th or worse over the last three seasons.

Dial is the only starter from last season under contract and healthy for the start of the 2016 season. He and last year’s first-round pick, Armstead, are the top returning players. Armstead flashed ability throughout his rookie season, and the team will look to him to take a step forward in consistency and to land a starting role by September.

The good news is the draft is rich in defensive linemen. No one can remember a class with so much potential, which means teams like the 49ers will have a chance to restock.

Could it also mean the free-agent market may not be quite as lucrative for defensive linemen? After all, why pay a bundle for a veteran when you think you can land a quality defensive lineman in the draft? If so, that should help the 49ers re-sign nose tackle Williams, their top defensive free agent. Because the nose tackle traditionally goes to the sideline in the 49ers’ nickel package, the team must decide Williams’ worth. He played 57.8 percent of the defensive snaps last season.

Dorsey tore his ACL in late November, and it may be midseason before he returns to action. Purcell can play both nose tackle and defensive end. He and Tony Jerod-Eddie, a restricted free agent, provide depth but neither is starter material.

THE 2016 CLASS

DeForest Buckner, Oregon: He has a lot of the same traits as former Ducks teammate Armstead, but he makes more plays on the ball. Like Armstead, Buckner has excellent length (he’s 6-foot-7) and once he sheds a blocker, he converges on a quarterback or ball carrier in an instant. What must be nice for a team considering Buckner with a top 10 pick: He hustles on ever play, even on plays far down the field. One concern: Buckner gets knocked to the ground a lot, often the result of locking his arms with one offensive lineman and getting shoved down by a second.

Robert Nkemdiche, Mississippi: He is explosive and athletic and similar to 2015 first-round pick Leonard Williams, who was picked sixth by the Jets. Evaluators will have to do a little extra digging after he fell 15 feet from an hotel-room window in December, was charged with marijuana possession and suspended from the team’s bowl game.

A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: He doesn’t have the explosion of Buckner and Nkemdiche, but he’s huge (6-4, 312 pounds) and is hard to move backward. He and teammate Jarran Reed are particularly good at absorbing double teams so teammates can make plays. Unlike Buckner, Robinson and Reed rarely end up on the ground.

Andrew Billings, Baylor: He doesn’t have the height and length the 49ers prefer for their 3-4 defensive ends, but he has great balance and a non-stop motor. Billings’ best fit is at nose tackle and he could be a second-round option if the 49ers can’t re-sign Williams..

Chris Jones, Mississippi State: At 6-6, he has the length the 49ers like but is a noticeable cut below Buckner in terms of athleticism. Jones is a junior, and like Armstead last year, the 49ers may feel they are grabbing someone in early rounds who will get better with time.

Matt Ioannidis, Temple: If the 49ers wait until the middle rounds or take two defensive linemen in the draft, Ioannidis is interesting. He’s not as long or quick as the other players, but he holds up well on the line of scrimmage against double- and sometimes triple-team blocks and would seem to be a functional rotational player in a 3-4 scheme.

MONDAY: The 49ers’ options at quarterback.

TUESDAY: Which running backs will help Hyde?

WEDNESDAY: The 49ers have few proven receivers.

THURSDAY: Chip Kelly favors WRs over TEs.

FRIDAY: Three spots up for grabs on o-line.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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