SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The free-agent market is scheduled to open March 9 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 7. We'll count down to that with a position-by-position look at what the San Francisco 49ers have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.
Position: Defensive line
What's needed: The 49ers have invested major draft capital in the defensive line in recent years, most notably spending their past two top picks on Buckner and Armstead. Buckner offered plenty of promise as a rookie and he figures to only get better as he polishes his pass-rush ability. Armstead was slowed by injury in 2016, but the 49ers believed he could have had a breakout season had he been fully healthy.
Now, the 49ers are altering their defensive scheme to a 4-3 base group under new coordinator Robert Saleh. The first task before determining their needs on the defensive line is figuring out where the current pieces fit. Buckner would seem to be an option to play 3-technique as a pass-rushing defensive tackle, while Armstead might be better suited to play strongside defensive end. If that's the case, it still leaves two important openings for a run-stuffer to play nose tackle (0- or 1-technique) and the Leo, which is essentially another defensive end on the weak side of the formation who is supposed to be a primary pass-rusher.
For the nose tackle job, the Niners now have a trio of in-house candidates in Mitchell, Dial and Purcell, but this is a defense that was last in the NFL against the run a year ago and could use even more help in the middle of the defensive line.
The good news? Even after signing Mitchell before free agency, this year's free-agent class could offer appealing options. The Baltimore Ravens' Brandon Williams and the Kansas City Chiefs' Dontari Poe have played in 3-4 schemes but easily could transition to a nose tackle job in a 4-3. Neither would come cheap but Williams, in particular, would be a strong get.
The Washington Redskins' Chris Baker might be a cheaper option should the 49ers want to go that route. The Carolina Panthers' Kawann Short received the franchise tag and barring a repeat of the Josh Norman situation isn't a realistic target. If the Niners believe neither Buckner nor Armstead fit as a 3-technique (or they just want depth), someone like the New York Giants' Johnathan Hankins or the Los Angeles Rams' Dominique Easley could be intriguing, cost-effective possibilities. Still, it's probably unlikely the Niners will spend big money to add more bodies at defensive tackle unless some bargains arise.
As for the Leo position, we covered some of that ground in the post on linebackers. The likes of Melvin Ingram, Nick Perry, Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard were covered there. But there are a few more from the defensive line group who could play the position. The Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul is one example, though the Giants tagged him as well.
The 49ers aren't going to be able to fill all of their needs in one offseason, but the defensive line, at least on paper, looks like an area where they might be able to find help for the short- and long-term future. The key for the 49ers is finding young players with upside who can still perform in a few years when the team has more pieces in place while also growing into solid leaders.
Possible fits: DT Kawann Short (Carolina/franchise tagged), DE Calais Campbell (Arizona), DT Brandon Williams (Baltimore), DE Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants/franchise tagged), DT Dontari Poe (Kansas City), DT Johnathan Hankins (New York Giants), DE Chris Baker (Washington), DT Dominique Easley (Rams).