San Francisco 49ers can likely make a defensive splash late in the draft

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The San Francisco 49ers will have at least 11 picks to work with for the NFL draft, which starts Thursday in New York.

The consensus is the 49ers will take aim at fulfilling their immediate needs at wide receiver and cornerback in the first few rounds. Rumor has it they may even trade up for a wide receiver with their first pick; something I didn’t picture them doing, given the depth at wide receiver in this year’s draft.

I still say they’d be fine selecting a marquee corner with their first pick at No. 30 and taking a wide receiver in the second round at No. 56 or No. 61, or both.┬áBut that’s just me.

The question is, what will the 49ers do from there? They appear to be solid everywhere else, with their one potential weakness being at, of all places, linebacker. Aldon Smith could face jail time for his three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon. NaVorro Bowman, meanwhile, is recovering from an ACL tear he suffered in the NFC Championship game. His return date is unknown.

The 49ers have good reason to remain confident. They went 5-0 last year while Smith was receiving treatment for alcohol abuse, and Bowman’s replacement, Michael Wilhoite, filled in admirably for Patrick Willis last season.

As I wrote last month, the team is still one injury away from being thin at inside and outside linebacker as long as Bowman and — possibly — Smith are out of action. And keep in mind, those are two of the most physically demanding positions.

With that in mind, it would behoove the 49ers to take a look at drafting an athletic linebacker, who can toe the line between stopping the run and defending the pass, in the later rounds.

If they can, the 49ers should take Adrian Hubbard of Alabama with their lone fifth-round pick at No. 170. As a 6-foot-6, 257-pound outside linebacker with great speed, he compares well to San Francisco’s Ahmad Brooks. Hubbard’s pass rush needs work, but he could be a temporary solution, if not a promising long-term addition, if Smith has to miss playing time this season.

Louisiana State inside linebacker Lamin Barrow could be an option as well, and a good one at that.

From there, the 49ers are off the clock until the seventh round, when they’ll make their final three picks in succession, starting at No. 242. The seventh round should be all about building off of what you already have. Some draft pundits think Stanford’s Ben Gardner could be available in the seventh round. If so, I can’t picture the 49ers passing up on the ferocious 6-foot-4, 277-pound defensive end. Harbaugh courted him while he was coaching at Stanford, and Gardner plays with the same style as the man he could replace some day, Justin Smith. He even looks like him.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the 49ers take some interior offensive linemen with their final two picks. There’s usually a plethora of quality ones late in the draft, and the 49ers are a running team. They can never have enough depth up front. I can see them going after any combination of Wisconsin guard Ryan Groy, Notre Dame Chris Watt, Vanderbilt center Wesley Johnson and Nebraska guard Spencer Long.

What’s your take?

Follow Scott on Twitter @SJAdams


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