PHOENIX -- We don't yet know all of the details of the San Francisco 49ers' base 4-3 defense under new coordinator Robert Saleh. We do know the Niners are making a transition from a 3-4 front to a 4-3, but whether that scheme will be more of a 4-3 under or 4-3 over look is something Saleh hasn't yet revealed.
In all likelihood, the Niners will probably be pretty multiple with their alignments up front. Saleh is a disciple of Seattle coach Pete Carroll and Carroll's defenses have used over and under looks in plenty of situations through the years. Regardless, he's described his defense as "a 4-3 front with 3-4 personnel."
That leaves the 49ers with plenty of work to do in the coming months to figure out where their current personnel fits best in Saleh's scheme. According to general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, that's an ongoing process that probably won't have clarity until the 49ers can get on the practice field.
"We have an idea of where we want to put guys, but we’re just going off of watching tape and they played in a different scheme, so we’re doing our best to evaluate them so we have an idea. But that’s what OTAs are for; that’s what the offseason is for; that’s what training camp is for," Shanahan said. "It could be always changing. We’re going to tell guys where we want them at first, but we're going to get out on the field and see where they’re best."
That's certainly an understandable approach, considering that young defensive linemen such as Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are expected to be focal points of the defense now and in the future. Both lined up at defensive end in the 3-4 defense of Jim O'Neil in 2016, but will be asked to alter their approach.
"They are all very good defensive linemen; they all have different traits," Shanahan said. "I think that you can move them around a little bit, not any one of them is exactly a 3-technique or exactly a nose. I think they have all the capabilities to do all of them. I wouldn’t pigeonhole them. I want to get them in and work with them and we’re going to find out where they’re best."
Saleh's defense is expected to be more of an attacking scheme than O'Neil's, something that could benefit Buckner and Armstead, both of whom struggled at times last year when they were asked to be more reactive.
The good news, according to Lynch, is that many of the incumbent defensive linemen don't appear to be square pegs trying to fit into round holes.
"I think we’re kind of settling in," Lynch said. "I think the thing that I feel good about is that, and I say that in praise of [former general manager] Trent [Baalke] and the guys he brought in, sometimes you come into a situation and I’ve talked to people, I’ve seen it where they were in a 3-4 and they just don’t fit in a 4-3. We feel like all of these guys can play; the guys that are still here, they’re here for a reason. We feel like they can play and not only play, but thrive in what we’re going to do.
"I think us cutting some of these guys loose; I’m excited to see an Arik Armstead when he’s in attacking posture as opposed to sitting on his heels. Some of the things he was asked to do, not that they’re wrong, we just feel like his best assets can really be brought out. That goes for a lot of these guys."
While there's still plenty of time to define roles and figure out where players fit best, one reason the Niners intend to hold the extra veteran minicamp they're allotted before the draft is so they can get at least a feel for how the pieces might go together. After a busy offseason, one of the Niners' greatest needs remains help for the pass rush.
No matter what position is added, help getting after the quarterback from the edge should be a team priority. That minicamp coming before the draft could play at least a small part in helping the Niners decide if they need to prioritize that position early with someone like Stanford's Solomon Thomas, or wait until the middle rounds in what's considered a talented pass-rushing class.
Early indications from Lynch suggest that it could come sooner rather than later.
"That will be set in our mind prior to the draft so you can go attack it," Lynch said. "I know when John Elway sat down to do this, he had a real great call with Ernie Accorsi. If you want to oversimplify, you’ve got to find the quarterback and you’ve got to find the guys to knock them down. So we’re looking for those."