SANTA CLARA — Niners general manager Trent Baalke is known for holding on to draft secrets as if they were made out of gold, but he might as well have tweeted his first-round plan this year.
Most mock NFL drafts had the 49ers taking Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead in the first round, and that’s exactly what they did Thursday. But it wasn’t before Baalke completed the first deal of the draft, in which he traded down two spots with San Diego, from 15th to 17th, and pocketed a fourth-rounder this year and a fifth-rounder in 2016 in return.
“I needed to appease the media, so I made the pick,” Baalke joked. “It really worked to our favor this year because in some respects, I would think for the last few years everyone we were associated with we never picked. So now this year we were associated with this young man and we picked him.”
Barring additional moves, the team will have nine more picks in the final six rounds. Cornerback and wide receiver remain high on its want list. Last week, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock called the 6-foot-7, 292-pound Armstead “a perfect fit” for what the 49ers need in their 3-4 defense.
The 49ers definitely need reinforcements on their defensive line, even if Baalke and coach Jim Tomsula say they have tremendous depth at the position. Starting left defensive end Ray McDonald was released after yet another off-field incident. Starting right end Justin Smith is contemplating retirement and will likely play only one more season if he does return. Armstead, who grew up in Sacramento, played defensive end in a 3-4 defense in college.
“Just learning a little bit about their defense, we run a similar scheme up at Oregon, a 3-4 scheme,” Armstead said during a conference call from his family’s home in Sacramento. “I think my skill set in the 3-4 is perfect. I picked up the defense real easy when I learned it, and I feel like I have the athleticism to play the end position in their defense.”
Armstead had only 2½ sacks last season as a junior, which was a red flag for some draft analysts. But he said the scheme called on him do to more than just sack the quarterback.
“My role was to be disruptive, take on blockers, free up guys at times,” Armstead said. “My role was to do whatever my coaches asked of me and I played my position well. I feel at Oregon I did what my coaches asked of me. I put my health on the line for them playing injured.”
Armstead also played basketball at Oregon his first two seasons before concentrating on football in his junior season. Some analysts, pointing to his time as a two-sport athlete, believe he is still a raw but gifted football player.
“I don’t think I’m raw,” Armstead said. “I think if people watch film of me they’ll see a technical, sound player. I think I have a lot of room to grow and a lot of things to improve on, but I’m looking forward to doing that with the coaching staff here.”
In the 49ers’ defensive system, linemen have to be big, powerful and quick enough to control two gaps along the line of scrimmage. Baalke said there are usually only a handful of draft-worthy players each year who are physically capable of handling that job.
“They’re hard to find,” Baalke said. “You need those guys to play the type of defense we play. How many 6-7, 290-pound men do they make? There just aren’t that many.”
Baalke and Tomsula said there’s no pressure on Armstead to fill a hole and start immediately as a rookie. Armstead will have time to get into the weight room, something that basketball interfered with at times, and master the techniques he’ll need to thrive in a new system.
“There’s going to be some development in the process,” Baalke said, “but we’re well aware of it.”
Baalke said he had a “Plan B” in case Armstead was chosen before the No. 17 pick.
“You never move back unless you have an alternate plan in mind,” Baalke said. “Arik was the one we were coveting at that pick.”
San Diego took Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon at No. 15, and Houston chose Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson at No. 16. That left Armstead for the 49ers, and he said he can’t wait to get started and learn some techniques to help him pressure quarterbacks.
“Get around some talented minds, coaching minds who are going to push me to the next level and teach me those key things and technique things to make me successful,” Armstead said of his immediate plans.
“I’m going in there open-minded, looking to work hard and be coachable.”