The 49ers, who drafted a 6-foot-7 defensive lineman out of Oregon a year ago, followed the same path Thursday, selecting DeForest Buckner with the No. 7 overall pick.
Then they did something unconventional, trading back into the first round to take Stanford guard Josh Garnett at pick No. 28. Garnett played in a gritty, power-blocking scheme at Stanford but worked out twice in front of Chip Kelly in the run-up to the draft. One of those sessions was at the 49ers’ pro day for local athletes earlier this month, which players who expect to go early in the draft usually shun.
That told the 49ers two things -- Garnett had quick enough feet to play in Kelly’s up-tempo scheme and that while Garnett went to an elite school, he was a football player at heart.
“The fact that he’s actually a very intelligent young man that wants to go to med school doesn’t take away from the fact that he loves football,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of guys that would come and say, ‘Hey, I’ve already been to the combine. I was a first-team all-American. You know who I am. I’m a local guy; I don’t have to work out.’ He looked at it as another opportunity to get coached by an NFL coach.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Kelly also was familiar with Garnett after recruiting him at Oregon in 2011. He missed on Garnett five years ago, but not Buckner.
He and Arik Armstead, taken 17th overall by the 49ers last year, were recruited by Kelly and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro that year as well. The two got their starts at the same time and played together until Armstead left for the NFL last year.
“I’m probably the happiest guy in the draft right now,” Buckner said on a call from his home on Oahu, Hawaii. “To be reunited with Arik and having that history with him in Oregon. We’re good friends and we’ve been talking about it a little bit throughout the draft process.”
Armstead said before the draft he’d be watching to see where his buddy – they were housemates in college – would be taken.
“That would be great,” Armstead said of possibly reuniting with Buckner. “That’s one of my closest friends. Having a chance to play with him again would be awesome.”
Both Buckner and Mississippi tackle Laremy Tunsil, who at one point was considered the top pick in the draft, were available when the 49ers picked. A video, allegedly showing Tunsil smoking marijuana, was posted on social media just before the draft began and Tunsil’s stock fell as a result. He was taken 13th overall by the Dolphins.
Buckner, who weighs 292 pounds, played on the right side of Oregon’s defensive line and likely will line up at a similar position in the 49ers’ 3-4 defense. Quinton Dial played there last year, but he could be needed at nose tackle early in 2016 if Ian Williams is not recovered from an offseason ankle injury.
Buckner was the consensus top defensive lineman in the draft. He had 17 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season and a Pac-12 best 10 1/2 sacks. His arms -- something both Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke carefully consider in draft prospects -- are long at 34 3/8 inches while his 11 3/4-inch hands tied for the biggest ever recorded at the scouting combine.
“I like to use my hands a lot in the pass-rush game,” Buckner said. “I like to use a lot of power in my game, too. But at the same time, when guys expect power, I use my athleticism because I’m pretty athletic for my size.”
Since Baalke began making the 49ers’ selections in 2010, they have had pre-draft visits with every first-round pick but one, safety Eric Reid, who was taken in 2013. Buckner visited the Chargers, Jaguars, Cowboys and Titans but not the 49ers. In fact, he said he didn’t have any contact with Kelly or Azzinaro since the scouting combine in February.
But Buckner said there was no reason for him to pay a visit.
“I feel like they already knew who I was as a person,” he said. “So there wasn’t much to get to know.”
The 49ers traded their second-round pick as well as a fourth- and sixth-round selection to Kansas City get Garnett, who won the Outland Trophy last year as the nation’s top interior lineman. The 49ers also received a seventh-round pick in the deal.
With free agent addition Zane Beadles playing left guard, Garnett becomes the frontrunner to start at right guard this year for San Francisco. His father, Scott, played defensive line for the 49ers in the 1980s, and Garnett said he was gunning to play in San Francisco.
“You never know,” Garnett said. “But I was excited. Going and meeting with the coaches and seeing the relationship we built and the bond we had -- it’s definitely great to know they believed in me like that. But I also feel that, hey, they believe in me, (that means) I’ve got to put in that much more work to prove them right.”