Now that we've taken care of the defensive and offensive backfields, I thought it was time to get down into the trenches and project out the defensive line. Thus far we've discussed the quarterbacks, the running backs, the fullbacks, the safeties, and the cornerbacks. As we move forward into the defensive line, we have a variety of issues to consider. The 3-4 defensive line is often considered an inglorious group. In the 3-4, the linemen generally are meant to open up holes for the linebackers to come through and make plays. Many 3-4 defenses include a monster nose tackle and two unknown defensive ends who are making life easier for the Ray Lewis' and Patrick Willis' of the world.
For the 49ers, those guys are players like Aubrayo Franklin, Justin Smith and player X on the left side of the line. For now player X is Isaac Sopoaga, but many of us are probably hoping other folks emerge.
The first guys I listed as locks really don't need much discussion at this point. Justin Smith is a wildly underrated defensive end that does just about everything. Aubrayo Franklin has emerged as one of the better nose tackles in the NFL. He's not quite the prototypical guy at the position, but in 2010 he made so many big plays for the team. And while Isaac Sopoaga has his detractors, I don't see him going anywhere as long as the team continues to wait for Balmer and McDonald to emerge. Sopoaga is a capable player, and while not on the level of Justin Smith, he's certainly an ok option on the left side for now.
The three guys that we will be focusing on in training camp are Ray McDonald, Kentwan Balmer and Ricky Jean-Francois. At this point, I am convinced all three will be on the 53-man roster come week 1 of the regular season. Maybe they're not strong locks like Smith or Franklin, but I really don't think the team will let them go between now and the beginning of September.
Ray McDonald's DUI certainly doesn't help his battle for a roster spot, but there are two reasons I don't think the team is going to cut him loose: 1) He's incredibly talented, and possibly more important for a coach like Mike Singletary, 2) I think this DUI was one of those monumental [site decorum]-ups and McDonald will learn his lesson. Maybe I'm just hoping that's the case, but I just don't see McDonald as the kind of guy who would repeat this kind of mistake. Thanks to the power of the Internet, you'll be able to link to this next time it happens. Whatever the case, I think he'll take his medicine (whether it be suspension, benching, or whatever) and grow from it.
Kentwan Balmer returned to the practice field earlier this week as his road back from shoulder surgery took a big step forward. Balmer has struggled in his brief NFL career, and the former #1 pick has his work cut out for him. Now that he's actually back on the practice field, he'll be battling Ray McDonald for playing time. McDonald benefits from the fact that he brings a very solid speed rush ability that Balmer lacks. If Balmer is going to become an impact player with this team, it will be stepping up when it comes to the grinding work down in the trenches. He'll certainly have to impress in practice, but given the role he is trying to fill, he'll need to really impress in the preseason games.
Ricky Jean-Francois has been getting a lot of practice time at the nose tackle position while the team waits for Aubrayo Franklin to sign his tender. As a 7th round pick, that's pretty huge for RJF. He came in as a defensive end, but the team has worked this offseason to get him more comfortable in the nose tackle role. Franklin remains the man there, but if the team can develop RJF into a capable backup, it will be huge for depth.
My question coming out of this projection is who will be the left defensive end come the end of the 2010 season? Will Sopoaga continue to hold onto his job, or will we see one of the younger guys step up and take the job from him?