49ers coach Kyle Shanahan's D-line draft doctrine started on Madden

Were Kinlaw and Aiyuk the right picks for the 49ers? (1:24)

Nick Wagoner details whether the 49ers made the right selection in taking Javon Kinlaw at 14th and Brandon Aiyuk at 25th in the 2020 NFL draft. (1:24)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan established his team-building philosophy long before he had a say in the real NFL draft.

As far back as 1997, Shanahan recalls drafting teams with his friends on the Madden video game. As his buddies picked offensive weapons such as Randy Moss, Shanahan preferred to load up early on pass-rushers.

"I'm always down to go defensive lineman if the right guy is there," Shanahan, 40, said. "I can promise you, ask my high school friends when we did Madden and we drafted our own guys, my first pick was always [Hall of Fame defensive end Michael] Strahan. ... I always wanted to do D-line."

Finding guys to get after the quarterback has become a Shanahan hallmark since he and general manager John Lynch took over the 49ers in 2017. The 49ers have taken a defensive lineman with their first pick in three of the four drafts led by Shanahan and Lynch, and this year's proceedings erased any doubt about their continued focus.

Even with intriguing options such as offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and receivers CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy on the board, the 49ers moved down a spot via the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first round of the 2020 NFL draft. Minutes after the Bucs selected Wirfs, the Niners turned in their selection for defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.

Kinlaw joins Solomon Thomas and Nick Bosa as first-round defensive lineman taken by the current regime, but it goes further than that. When you account for Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, the 49ers have drafted a defensive lineman in the first round five of the past six years.

Only Thomas -- taken No. 3 overall in 2017 -- could be considered a disappointment relative to draft position, which means the Niners aren't drafting defensive linemen to cover up for previous mistakes. They're doing it because it's at the heart of how they want to build their team.

"You go back to when we first built this thing, Kyle and I came together, one of the things that we really believed in is that that's an equalizer in a football league where everything's set up for offenses to be successful," Lynch said. "One of the ways you can equalize the equation is to get after and knock down the passer. We built a pretty good unit there, and we wanted to keep that strong. We thought [Kinlaw] was a great fit for that."

The Niners hope adding Kinlaw gives them a short- and long-term replacement for Buckner, whom they traded to the Indianapolis Colts in March for the pick that turned into Kinlaw. Replacing Buckner is no easy task, though, even for a highly regarded first-round pick.


Javon Kinlaw's NFL draft profile

Check out some the highlights that make former South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw a top prospect in this year's NFL draft.

Still, Kinlaw will earn roughly $20 million less than Buckner is set to make in 2020. Surrounded by the likes of Bosa, Armstead, D.J. Jones and Dee Ford, Kinlaw likely won't see as many double-teams as he did in college and should have plenty of opportunities to produce right away. And with veteran defensive line coach Kris Kocurek leading the way, the Niners and Kinlaw believe they can maximize potential.

"They might've been the best defensive line in football last year," Kinlaw said. "I'm not just saying that. The way they play, they play the right way. I feel like they play the way the game is supposed to be played."

The 49ers trotted out a quartet of Bosa, Ford, Armstead and Buckner during the NFC playoffs and allowed a QBR of 0.7 (zero is the lowest possible). The 44 sacks the Niners got from first-round picks last season was tied for the most in a season since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

The team's 61 total sacks (including playoffs) were most in the NFL, with 52 of those sacks coming from defensive linemen. Armstead (10), Bosa (9), Buckner (7.5) and Ford (6.5) combined to make the 49ers the only team in the NFL with four or more players having at least 6.5 sacks during the regular season.

Behind that line, the 49ers finished tied for first in the league in yards allowed per play (4.66), second in yards allowed per game (281.8) and first in passing yards allowed per game (169.2). While some teams, such as the New England Patriots, are believers in building and investing first in the secondary, the 49ers have put more resources in building front to back.

The Niners are paying Armstead and Ford an average of $17 million per season each, leading a group that is slated to account for about 23% of San Francisco's salary cap in 2020.

It doesn't look like that's going to stop anytime soon.

In a few years, Bosa figures to get a massive contract, while Jones and Thomas are set to be unrestricted free agents after this season. Escaping a big contract like Ford's could become necessary to keep key free agents such as tight end George Kittle, cornerback Richard Sherman, Jones, safety Jaquiski Tartt, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and others after this season.

All of which means it wouldn't be a surprise if, at this time next year, the Niners take a defensive lineman in the first round for the sixth time in seven years.

"I am an offensive coach, and it's more fun for me in an offense with offensive playmakers, but nothing's more fun than having a defense like we had last year," Shanahan said. "And I think that gives you the best chance to go to the Super Bowl. And I think that's why John has a Super Bowl ring. I think that's why a lot of people have been on the top defenses, too. And if we have that top defense, I think it's easier to manufacture it on offense where not many people manufacture a defense. That defense better be more talented than almost everyone they're going against."