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49ers reloading on defense with Armstead

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The first draft pick of the Jim Tomsula era in San Francisco 49ers football is a defensive lineman. That’s no surprise.

The question is: Was it a need pick or a luxury?

After moving down two spots to acquire two additional picks, the 49ers selected Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead with the No. 17 pick of the 2015 draft.

No doubt, the 6-foot-7, 292-pounder was selected to replace standout Justin Smith. Whether that handing of the baton takes place this season or sometime in the future remains unknown.

Neither Tomsula nor general manager Trent Baalke shared any news regarding the status of Smith, who is pondering retirement.

“We went into the draft not thinking about what decision Justin’s going to make or not going to make,” Baalke insisted. “We went in to find the best football player.”

If anything, Tomsula chose to err on the wishful-thinking side when he said, “We’re strong (on the defensive line). We just got stronger.”

Tomsula coached a defensive line last season that started the year with Smith on one side and Ray McDonald on the other. The 49ers already imported Darnell Dockett from Arizona to replace McDonald, a move many consider an upgrade.

Needing to replace Smith with Armstead, whom Tomsula referred to as “inconsistent,” certainly would not be.

“How many 6-7, 295 men do they make?” asked Baalke, choosing to feature Armstead’s measurables over his production. “A lot of them are playing basketball.”

Armstead had the reputation as more of a run stopper than a sacker at Oregon, where he got to the quarterback just four times in his entire three-year career. He apparently sold the 49ers on the fact that everything he did — or didn’t do — in 2014 was impacted by an ankle injury.

“I think I’m definitely a nickel pass rusher,” he claimed on a conference call shortly after being selected. “I have the athleticism and length to do that, and I’m looking forward to doing that more and getting after the quarterback more.”

Few teams have done a better job preparing for the future in recent years than the 49ers. For example, they lost perennial standouts Frank Gore and Mike Iupati since the end of the 2014 season, yet believe they are in great shape to move forward without a hitch because of the 2014 selections of Carlos Hyde (second round) and Brandon Thomas (third).

In other words, the 49ers will be completely happy if Armstead isn’t a starter in 2015.

After all, he wasn’t drafted to start next season. He was drafted to start when Smith is no longer around, whenever that is.

The 49ers, originally scheduled to select 15th, received a fourth-round pick (No. 117 overall) and a 2016 fifth-rounder from the San Diego Chargers for the right to flip-flop the 15th and 17th picks of the first round Thursday night.


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