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NFL Draft: 49ers should take Malik Hooker

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NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers will be switching schemes under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, moving from their previously standard 3-4 defense to a 4-3 scheme that will look (on the board) an awful lot like what Pete Carroll brought to the Seattle Seahawks.

Saleh spent three seasons with the Seahawks as a defensive quality control coach prior to becoming the Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach in 2014. Having spent the last six seasons working in Carroll’s defense, Saleh will bring that scheme and ideology with him to San Francisco.

While a switch to a 4-3 already begs several headache inducing questions for the 49ers -- How do defensive lineman Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner fit into a four-man front? Can Aaron Lynch play with his hand in the dirt? — the single most crucial question will linger until the team finds the answer to: who will be their Earl Thomas?

As evidenced by Seattle’s defensive collapse late last season without Thomas, the role of the free safety in Carroll’s defense is without a doubt the most important piece. With the strong safety playing as an eighth defender in the box on most downs, the free safety is responsible for playing essentially the role of both safeties ... or as half the deep defenders in quarters coverage.

The type of player that possesses the athletic ability, mental processing, and football IQ to do that type of role successfully is incredibly rare. Seahawks reserve safety Steven Terrell (he of a 4.36 40-yard dash) failed miserably in his attempt to fill the role in 2016. The Jaguars under Gus Bradley cycled through free safeties like Jed York cycles through pink slips. Without a free safety capable of doing all the things asked of him in Carroll’s defensive scheme, the entire integrity of the defense falls apart.

Unsurprisingly, a player of Thomas’s skill and value are incredibly hard to come by. However, the 2017 draft may have just the guy and the 49ers are the only team in prime position to select him. (Since the Cleveland Browns will be taking Myles Garrett, without hesitation.) Ohio State safety Malik Hooker may give San Fran the best shot at giving their new defense a backbone.

An instinctive athlete, Hooker is the best defensive back in a supremely talented secondary class. He can play the run as a box-defender, has all the tools to be a single-high safety, has outstanding ball skills and is a certified top-five pick after starting just one season as a Buckeye.

Ohio State alum Albert Breer has previously said on his MMQB podcast that a big reason he heard for both Buckeye safeties left for the NFL last season (Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell) was that the pair weren’t sure how much longer they could hold off Hooker if they stuck around for another season in Columbus. Hooker ended up recording 74 tackles, seven interceptions, three returned for touchdowns, and 5.5 tackles for a loss while playing alongside Marshon Lattimore, the expected top cornerback in the draft, and Gareon Conley, who will likely be a first round pick as well. It’s the type of secondary symbiosis that the Seahawks have experienced with Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and several key players to take up the other cornerback spot.

Ohio State lost 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl to Clemson, but Hooker did get an interception off of DeShaun Watson, as did Conley.

On Daniel Jeremiah’s Move The Sticks podcast, Jeremiah has said he hears the same things about Hooker’s ball skills and playmaking ability that Jeremiah witnessed from Ed Reed during his time with the Baltimore Ravens; after Hooker intercepts off a pass, his teammates go into the mindset that it’s a punt return, trying to get hats on heads as soon as possible - anything can happen once he has the ball in his hands.

Hooker is an Earl Thomas-level player with Ed Reed-level ball skills, and he’s exactly what the 49ers need. Without Thomas, Carroll’s defensive is rendered ineffective and in Hooker, San Francisco would have their best crack at giving Saleh their very own version of Thomas. Would it be a surprise to anyone to see John Lynch make his very first pick as a GM be a safety?

All Seattle fans can hope for at this point is that Lynch manages to screw this up. Otherwise, the NFC West may be getting a new elite safety.