On pace for the No. 1 pick, 49ers must draft a pass-rusher

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Let there be no debate about what the San Francisco 49ers' biggest positional need is as they hurtle toward the offseason and, possibly, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft.

Coach Kyle Shanahan didn't go so far as to say it on Wednesday, but it wasn't hard to read between the lines when he was asked if a dominant edge rusher can have a transformative effect on a defense.

"Yeah, I'd say a quarterback on offense and an edge rusher on defense," Shanahan said. "A quarterback can hide a lot of problems and so can a pass rush. You can do different things in coverage. You can be more aggressive. You can have some holes and some vulnerabilities that you can see as a coach and there's lots of stuff you'd like to try versus some of these coverages.

"A lot of people will come in and draw it on the board and it's like, ‘Man, that's great. Have you watched the end zone copy yet? I know he'll be open, but our guy's helmet is going to be rolling on the ground by the time we try to throw it.' So, it's all those types of things that go into account, and the more big plays you can try, no matter what happens, eventually if you get them off, you're going to score some points, and a pass-rusher is going to eliminate all of that."

Shanahan and general manager John Lynch believe they got their quarterback last year when they traded a second-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo and signed him to a lucrative long-term contract. But, aside from re-signing journeyman Cassius Marsh and taking a flier on Jeremiah Attaochu, the 49ers largely ignored that position in each of the past two offseasons.

That wasn't for a lack of trying, though, as the Niners had multiple free-agent edge rushers on their radar two years ago but none hit the open market. Last year's free-agency crop was even leaner at the position.

As for the draft, the Niners did take Solomon Thomas at No. 3 overall in 2017, but he's shown he's not a true edge rusher. The 2018 class also didn't offer much in that regard aside from Bradley Chubb, who went to the Denver Broncos five picks before the Niners selected.

Lynch and Shanahan also have confirmed multiple times that they made a strong offer for Khalil Mack, one Lynch believed was as strong as or stronger than the one the Raiders eventually accepted from the Chicago Bears.

Aside from defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, the 49ers have not had much of a pass-rushing attack this season. They are tied for 20th in sacks with 29, though eight of those came against a struggling and banged-up Oakland Raiders offensive line. They've hit or sacked the quarterback 60 times, which is tied for 29th in the league, and their sack per dropback rate of 6.3 percent is 20th in the league.

Without consistently creating pressure off the edge, opposing quarterbacks are averaging 2.78 seconds before throwing the ball, which is the ninth-most time in the league. Opponents have attempted 52 passes of 20 or more yards in the air, tied for the fourth most, and an example of how long it's taking for the Niners to collapse the pocket.

Making matters more pressing is a constantly evolving league that now regularly has offenses putting up huge amounts of points and yards. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was recently watching the Los Angeles Rams play the Kansas City Chiefs and couldn't help but notice that while the offenses were posting big numbers, it was sacks and forced fumbles that altered the outcome of that game.

"Those guys change games," Saleh said. "In the fourth quarter, it's about closing the door, somehow on defense. Whether in the back end making a play, up front winning a one-on-one. As a coach, getting the right pressure or coverage called. So, it's all of us combined. But, especially in our scheme, it's never been a lack of importance. The premium has always been there."

In today's NFL, it's not so much about having a dominant defense from down to down as it is having one that can be timely and opportunistic.

The Broncos, the Niners' opponent this week and Lynch's former team, offer a prime example of what placing a premium on edge rushers can do. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware were critical in the team's run to a victory in Super Bowl 50, with Miller earning game MVP honors. The Broncos drafted Chubb with the fifth pick in this year's draft -- even with Miller still in-house -- in an effort to get back to dominance.

That premium investment has worked, as Chubb has 10 sacks and needs just two to break Miller's Broncos rookie record. Miller has been his usual, dominant self with 12.5 sacks, and their combined 22.5 sacks is the most by a duo in the league this year.

"You can never have enough pass-rushers," said Broncos general manager John Elway, who has used his only two top-five picks in eight seasons on edge rushers. "That's the climate we're in. That's the game, and on defense you have to be in a position where you can affect the passer in as many situations as possible.''

It's a philosophy Shanahan agrees with but one he hasn't yet been able to execute, though there's a strong chance that will change soon.

On Wednesday, Shanahan rattled off all the game-changing pass-rushers who led some of the league's best defenses over the past 20 or so years, names such as Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney.

Put simply, the Niners don't have that type of player right now. Part of the reason is they haven't had a real chance to get one. At 2-10 with four games to go, the Niners currently sit in position to have the top pick in April's draft. They should, finally, get a crack at an elite edge rusher with Ohio State's Nick Bosa leading the charge and others -- including Michigan's Rashan Gary, Clemson's Clelin Ferrell and Kentucky's Josh Allen -- offering one of the best and deepest classes of interior and exterior pass-rushers in recent memory.

While any of those players could help the 49ers, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said Thursday that Bosa stands alone for teams in search of a dominant edge rusher.

"It's interesting because there's so many good players and there's so many good defensive linemen in this class, and it's easy to kind of look at the whole and say, 'There's a bunch of guys and there's going to be one there for us,'" McShay said. "But at the end of the day, when I was done with my evaluation of players in the summer, and then as I watched throughout the season -- and I know Bosa hasn't played in a while -- he is different. In my opinion, he is different than everybody else."

Sounds exactly like the player who can give their defense the edge it needs.