Editor’s note: Matt Maiocco will provide daily content previewing the NFL Draft, including position breakdowns, news stories, mock drafts and more. Here, he analyzes draft prospects at linebacker, and whether the 49ers should select one.
The 49ers fell from the fifth-ranked defense in the league in 2014 to the fourth-worst a year later.
The 49ers experienced key losses at every level of their defense – including the coaching staff with Eric Mangini replacing Vic Fangio -- so the finger cannot be pointed in only one direction.
NaVorro Bowman returned from a severe knee injury that wiped out his 2014 season. Michael Wilhoite started in his place. Then, Wilhoite took over for Patrick Willis, who retired in March 2015.
Gerald Hodges, acquired in a trade last season, will get an opportunity to compete for a starting job after his first full offseason with the organization.
The 49ers also lost their best pass-rusher, Aldon Smith, who was released after his fifth run-in with the law since he joined the team in 2011 as the No. 7 overall draft pick.
Who’s here: NaVorro Bowman, Aaron Lynch, Ahmad Brooks, Michael Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges, Eli Harold, Corey Lemonier, Nick Bellore, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Shayne Skov
Draft needs: The 49ers’ defense was at its best with Bowman and Willis playing side-by-side. Bowman made good progress throughout last year, but he is not the same player he was before his injury. Wilhoite is solid, but he is not in the same mold as Willis, who was a sideline-to-sideline presence in his prime.
The 49ers figure to look hard at the linebacker spots in the draft, whether they consider an inside linebacker or more pass rush from the outside linebackers.
Good fits: One of the big question marks in the early portion of the draft has nothing to do with on-field ability or how a certain player is graded on the field. UCLA linebacker Myles Jack is widely considered near the top of every team’s draft board. If he were still available at No. 7, the 49ers would be certain to select him.
However, the only concern with Jack is his right knee. There are mixed opinions on his rehab and recovery from the meniscus tear, the NFL Network reported last week. If the 49ers’ medical staff is comfortable with his physical condition, then he will not make it to the No. 8 overall pick. If teams around the league share a pessimistic view of his knee, he is likely to tumble out of the top-10.
Jaylon Smith of Notre Dame was also a top player, but there is such concern of his knee issue – and drop foot -- that he is expected to slip to the third day of the draft and not be available for at least his rookie season.
The 49ers need to come up with a better pass rush, as Kevin Dodd (Clemson) showed some ability to flip his hips and play in coverage during pre-draft workouts. Such players as Dodd, Leonard Floyd (Georgia), Kamalei Correa (Boise State) and Shilique Calhoun (Michigan State) might be listed as outside linebackers, but they would fit with the 49ers, at least initially, as solely pass-rushers in nickel situations.