49ers add more help to already stout defense in NFL draft

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)


Associated Press

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Already armed with a defense that ranked No. 1 overall a year ago, the San Francisco 49ers surprisingly used the NFL draft to strengthen the depth of that unit, taking defensive players with five of their nine picks.

They bypassed what seemed to be some glaring holes, particularly on the offensive line.

With an early run on offensive linemen by other teams, however, the pickings were slim when the 49ers got to work. General manager John Lynch said the 49ers weren’t going to draft an offensive lineman just to draft one, and coach Kyle Shanahan agreed.

The next best thing was to find available talent wherever it was.

“We would have loved to have taken an O-lineman but the draft didn’t work out that way,” Shanahan said.

A day after using third-round picks on a safety, kicker and tight end, all of whom could play pivotal roles over the next few years, the 49ers - armed with six picks over the final three rounds - continued to focus primarily on defense Saturday.

In the fifth round, San Francisco selected South Alabama cornerback Darrell Luter Jr. with the No. 115 pick and edge rusher Robert Beal Jr. from Georgia with pick No. 173. The Niners took speedy TCU linebacker Dee Winters at No. 216 in the sixth round.

With three picks in the seventh round, San Francisco chose Oklahoma tight end Brayden Willis (No. 247), Michigan wide receiver Ronnie Bell (No. 253) and Purdue linebacker Jalen Graham (No. 255).

“We have a good team that does have some depth, and our first goal is that we hope that these draft picks can make our team, which isn’t easy to do,” Shanahan said.

Luter can play outside cornerback or down in the box covering the slot.

“I got the strength, I’ve got the physicality, I’ve got the mental part of the game,” Luter said. “Coming into the NFL, that’s something I take pride in.”

Luter had only five interceptions in three seasons at South Alabama but was a first team All-Sun Belt Conference selection in 2021, when he had four picks and deflected 10 passes.

His selection came on the heels of San Francisco taking safety Ji’Ayir Brown from Penn State with the 87th overall pick Friday.

Later in the fifth round, the 49ers added Beal to an already strong pass rush that produced 44 sacks last season. Beal had 6 1/2 sacks in 2021 when the Bulldogs won the national championship. His production dipped to 3 1/2 sacks in 15 games last year.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 247-pounder has the size and skillset to play down as a lineman or standing up as an outside linebacker. He ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at the combine and has a wingspan of nearly 7 feet.

“(The 49ers) were like my favorite team growing up,” Beal said. “Growing up, it was between the 49ers and the Falcons but it was 49ers before the Falcons. It is crazy how it comes full circle. I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

Winters, who has 4.49 speed, had 7 1/2 sacks, 14 1/2 tackles for loss and a pick-6 last season.

San Francisco added a second tight end in Willis, who can also play fullback. A second team All-Big 12 Conference pick in 2022, Willis had seven touchdowns as a senior and will compete with fellow draftee Cameron Latu (No. 101 overall) for playing time in Shanahan's offense alongside perennial Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle.

Bell showed some playmaking abilities at Michigan with 62 catches for 889 yards and four touchdowns in 2022 while also doubling up as a punt returner. He was the team’s offensive rookie of the year in 2018 but missed all of 2021 with a torn ACL.

“He’s a guy that the more we watched, the more we liked,” Lynch said. “He did it at the right times, too. So Ronnie was a great addition.”

Graham had 169 tackles and two sacks over four seasons at Purdue, then skipped the Citrus Bowl as a senior to prepare for the draft.


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Updated April 29, 2023