Sakamoto: Why 49ers need to draft ‘LEO’ Pass Rusher DE Derek Barnett

Production. That’s one word commonly associated with Tennessee DE Derek Barnett. A player who is highly regarded as one of the premier pass rushers in this year’s NFL Draft, it will be interesting to see where the former Volunteer falls, as this year’s draft class is stacked with a plethora of edge rushers. 

Depending on who you follow, there is no consensus on Barnett’s projected draft stock. Some believe he is a top 10 pick, while others grade him out in the 15-25 range. If you ask me, there is no doubt in my mind that the Volunteer’s all-time sack leader is in the former. 

Outside of Texas A&M DE/OLB Myles Garrett and maybe Alabama’s OLB Tim Williams, Barnett may be the best pure edge rusher in this year’s draft. His motor runs hot, displays violent hands, and is extremely physical at the POA (point of attack). 

The San Francisco 49ers are clearly in the market to find a pass rusher at the ‘LEO’ position, and Barnett would fit that need to a tee. The ‘LEO’ is aligned on the outside shade of opposing left tackles, right next to a three-technique defensive tackle. At 6-3, 259, Barnett would be a welcomed addition to the team’s defensive front simply because his unique skill-set as an edge-setter can’t be ignored. 

At the college level, players can usually get by without the use of fundamentals. A simple speed or bull-rush will usually get the job done against lesser talent. Not in the NFL. Measurables play a role. From arm-length to play strength, the NFL is unforgiving to those who brush off being a sound technician down in the trenches.

Sure, every NFL team values pass rushers, and you can never have enough of them, but they also need to be able to set the edge in the run-game. Barnett has that box checked. 

The 49ers ranked dead last in the NFL last season in stopping the run– allowing 165.9 rushing yards per game. To add insult to injury, they also allowed an NFL-high 25 touchdowns in the process. If the 49ers are to strike gold with their first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft, that rookie better be able to excel in both run and pass. 

It makes no sense to draft a two-down player with a top five pick. For this reason, I would love the 49ers to trade down from their current No. 2 draft position and select Barnett. However, it’s easier said than done, as the 49ers would need to find a suitable trading partner in the 5-8 range. Why? Because based on my current mock draft, I don’t see Barnett falling passed the Carolina Panthers at No. 8. 

Can the 49ers take Barnett at No. 2? Sure they can, but that would be too high for his draft stock, in my honest opinion. Should a team like the Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, or New York Jets fall in love with Alabama DT Jonathan Allen, a trade could be in the works, if one team wants to leap-frog ahead of the others. All those teams need a defensive tackle and Allen is the cream of the crop in this year’s draft. 

But why select Barnett over Ohio State FS Malik Hooker or Alabama LB Reuben Foster. The answer is simple. Games are won down in the trenches–physically imposing your will on the opposition. That’s what made former 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh teams so great. Not to mention, in Foster’s most important job interview of his life–he failed. Being told to leave the NFL scouting combine before the festivity took place. Can the 49ers risk selecting another defensive player with character concerns? I don’t think so. 

As far as Hooker is concerned. He only had one year of starting experience, and I don’t believe that’s enough body of work for the 49ers to draft him at No. 2. Aside from that, you can have the best secondary in the game, but they can only cover for so long. Eventually the receiver will get open. However, by establishing an organic pass rush with an elite defensive front, you’re the ones applying the pressure. That’s just Football 101. 

For that very reason, the team should roll the dice on Barnett as their first-round pick. Remember Hall of Fame DE Reggie White? You know, the Green Bay Packer responsible for dominating 49ers offensive lines during the 1990’s. Well, Barnett broke his sack record, en route to becoming the new Volunteers all-time sack leader. A record that stood 32-years. That type of production out of the powerhouse SEC should not be taken lightly. 

But Barnett’s measurables at the scouting combine weren’t all that impressive due to sickness– which is why some NFL teams may diminish his current draft value. He ran a 4.88 40-time and showed little explosion with a 31.0 inch vertical. However, he looked extremely fluid in position drills, and a measurable that I value more than any other when evaluating change-of-direction for pass rushers is the 3-cone drill. 

The 3-cone drill was devised to test a player’s agility, quickness, and explosion. Barnett had an impressive 6.96 cone-time. For comparison purposes, Las Vegas Raiders DE Khalil Mack had a slower run of 7.08 cone-time. That’s a measurable of a player who can explode off the blocks and get up-field in a hurry. 

When evaluating Barnett’s game, I see a mirror image of a former NFL player DE John Abraham. Like Barnett, Abraham came out of the coveted SEC with the South Carolina Gamecocks, who would go on to have a Pro Bowl filled career. Five Pro Bowls to be exact. I envision similar success with Barnett, which is why I would understand the 49ers taking Barnett at No. 2, if no trading partners come calling. 

The 49ers are in a tough spot and need to make the most of the current position they find themselves in. They need a double-digit sack artist. Plain and simple. They haven’t had one since OLB Aldon Smith did it back in 2012 recording 19.5 sacks, and before that you would have to dig up the dirty archives of 2002 when DE Andre Carter recorded 12.5. 

49ers DE Aaron Lynch needs help on the other side from a pass-rushing standpoint, and Barnett would be the perfect complement in making that a reality. An ideal 1-2 punch and a player who will bring a nasty, physical, aggressive demeanor to that San Francisco D. 

What are your thoughts Forever Faithful? Give us your analysis and insights on what the 49ers should do with the No. 2 overall pick. Let’s hear it! Best answers will be featured on our website tomorrow…

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of NinerFans.com, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at ryan@NinerFans.com or call him at (408) 622-0996.

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