We've arrived at what is commonly referred to as the most important player for any 3-4 defense, the nose tackle. Just a few short seasons ago, it was a position of considerable need and many questions were raised regarding the team's ability to even run the defense with the personnel on hand. Something happened though, and the man below starting blowing things up and dominating. There was an answer, which is always nice - finding an answer already on the roster. Why can't it happen more often?
Going forward though, the position can either be considered a strength or gigantic question mark depending on what happens, so let's get to it. The look ahead is much more in depth than the look back, which is odd considering the title of the article, but I'm pointing out the irony so you don't have to.
|2010 - Aubrayo Franklin||16||0||0||0||0||0||38||1||39|
Aubrayo played ... well, he played flat-out bad at the beginning of the season, which was probably due to the fact that he missed essentially all offseason activities and training camp. It showed in the earlier practices he took part in according to the other beat writers, and it definitely showed on the field. He wasn't in on as many snaps, and he didn't look as good just occupying space or getting any better. It took him a few games to even make his presence known, and throughout those few games, it looked like his 2009 season was just lightning in a bottle.
But slowly, he got better, and he looked more like the Franklin from the previous season, the one that earned the franchise tag. He never quite rose back to that level, and age has to be brought into the discussion going forward. Still, you can do a lot worse than Franklin as your nose tackle, especially because he's just not typically that kind of guy, but his style of play is perfect for the position in its own way. Patrick Willis, Takeo Spikes and the rest of the defense had expressed Franklin's importance to the team. They insist that he is the reason for any success they have and going forward, that's something to consider.
Consider his 2010 season a decent one, and not necessarily one of regression - the only certainty is that he definitely needs a full slate of offseason activities and training camps to ensure complete readiness for the onslaught of a full NFL season.
After the jump, we take a look at the other nose tackle option on the 49ers' roster, 2011 free agents for the position and of course, the 2011 NFL draft ...
|2010 - Ricky Jean Francois||8||1||4||0||0||0||9||2||11|
Obviously, those stats don't say much at all, but if stats were all that mattered, you wouldn't need bloggers, and I'd be a very sad and lonely person. Instead though, I get to tell you why Ricky Jean Francois has a lot of potential and things of that nature. He was active for all sixteen games and served as the primary backup to Aubrayo Franklin. He did look good for the time he was in there in the regular season, but he did fail to make an impact and it was clear we were all witnessing an unfinished product at work. He saw some time in the nickel at defensive tackle and took some snaps as the nose tackle.
The biggest thing for Francois this past season was the offseason and preseason, as a matter of fact. With Aubrayo being out due to the whole free agency/franchise tag deal, Francois took all of the first and second team snaps at nose tackle in training camps and preseason. The coaches and beat writers all noted his considerable progress and later on the fans would note his leaps-and-bounds progression when they saw him in the preseason.
Still though, he is coming out of the seventh round, which means he's probably already exceeded any and all expectations regarding him, which is nice.
The franchise tag would be paying Aubrayo around $12 million in 2011 if the 49ers opted to go that route, but many see that as something they will elect not to do. That doesn't mean he's going to be out for sure, though. There are a few teams looking for nose tackles this offseason, true, but some of them will likely settle for the draft to satiate their need and others will be hoping that the big boy in Baltimore doesn't get the tag so they may pursue him.
It's very possible Aubrayo sticks around, it just comes down to what the 49ers are willing to pay him and how valuable they believe Ricky Jean Francois is. Franklin is thirty years-old, that's true - but nose tackles can get an awful lot of mileage on them before they are done. I'd assume that's because most offensive lines collapse to catch the nose tackles that rush in to occupy space as opposed to push forward to slam into them on every single snap. It would not be a bad idea to get him under contract, and $12 million isn't overpaying too much.
Francois will need another full offseason of work if he's to be inserted into a starting role, and to make that an even bigger issue, the team has changed defensive coordinators. It's unclear if Vic Fangio will stick with either of these two guys when it really comes down to it, because the 49ers under Greg Manusky used a much different kind of nose tackle than you'd generally see around the league.
So it's a definite question mark, but with these two options, free agency and the 2011 NFL Draft, the 49ers stand to come out alright in that sense.
Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens: Easily the cream of the crop here, the top guy that any team running a 3-4 would want. Ngata has come into his own with an ability to do ... well, basically everything. He does what a nose tackle needs to do with space and stopping the run, but then he gets out there in space and makes tackles and gets consistent pressure on the quarterback.
The only problem? There's probably not any scenario where Ngata doesn't get slapped with the franchise tag at some point of this month. But hey, maybe that won't matter in the long run with the new collective bargaining agreement, yeah?
Paul Soliai, Miami Dolphins: He played great football in 2011, starting the season as a backup and quickly becoming one of the better linemen in the league. He stuffs the run ridiculously well, and has great size for a nose tackle. If the 49ers are looking to spend some free agent dollars on a position of need and have that person be actually attainable, here's the guy they need to go after. It would be an absolute upgrade at the position and probably a better choice than paying Franklin twelve million.
Pat Williams, Minnesota Vikings: He's a guy who is close to retiring, but still playing at a high level. Perhaps the kind of guy that could come in for a decent paycheck and learn RJF a thing or two. I honestly don't expect him to re-sign with the Vikings at this point, but can the 49ers persuade him to come to San Francisco? I don't know that it's likely, as he might want to sign with a Super Bowl contender. Maybe he goes to Baltimore and we get Ngata? That would be special, but probably won't happen.
Ron Edwards, Kansas City Chiefs: This is not a sexy option, not at first glance by any stretch of the imagination. Edwards is older than Aubrayo and will be 32 when the 2011 season begins. Our friends over at Arrowhead Pride considered whether or not it was smart to pass on a nose tackle in the 2010 NFL Draft when looking ahead they don't have an answer. So why is he on this list again?
Because he's good, just not for any huge length of time and not on a consistent enough basis. If the 49ers can't bring Aubrayo Franklin back and can't lure any of the other free agents to San Francisco, but like what Jean Francois can do, isn't Edwards the perfect guy for that? When he does play well, he's dominant at what he does - he can stop the run very well and occupies space as he should. As the season wears on and Edwards starts to slow down, we might see more and more of Ricky, and many would consider that a good thing, no? The 49ers could even start RJF and bring in Edwards as insurance. Either way, to me, Edwards is a solid option all things considered, providing he acts as support in some form to RJF or a rookie.
There are some intriguing guys here, but ultimately the draft is not top-heavy in nose tackle talent. There are two guys who could go in the first round, and then some fringe-second rounders. I fully expect the 49ers to draft a guy, but it will be someone later on, maybe in the fourth round somebody who should have went in the late second/early third falls gets taken, but beyond that I expect them to take a chance in the 5th or 6th and see if they can come up with something better than Ricky Jean Francois, no offense intended to Freaky Jean.
Someone like Corey Liuget is intriguing, though he doesn't necessarily have the size for the position. He might be more of a defensive end, but maybe Jim Tomsula has more input than we'e thought over the years and likes the smaller, faster guys. Phil Taylor is an absolute beast of a man that is way too athletic for his own good. There's so much ... so much man there, and it moves so fast. He causes havoc in the backfield and is generally a great option for a 3-4 nose tackle.
The only problem is, those two are first round talents who will go no later than the first half of the first round. The 49ers can't afford to go there at this point unless they are absolutely certain that they cannot retain the services of Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean Francois is nowhere close to ready.
Still, there are options later on. Jerrell Powe is a guy I have definitely had my eye on, despite a bad season. He's been doing things that no nose tackle should do, and that will hurt his stock in the draft. If he is around in the third round and I've already addressed one or two of the top three needs in the first two rounds, I'd be hardpressed to NOT go with Powe. He's big and mean, and he's just being used flat-out wrong in Mississippi. Another guy to keep an eye on is Sione Fua of, hey look at that, Stanford. He doesn't have all the size, but it's still plausible. I'd take him in the fourth, maybe even third.
1(38) Corey Liuget, Illinois
2(81) Phil Taylor, Baylor
3(93) Jerrell Powe, Mississippi
4(115) Sione Fua, Stanford
5(155) Kenrick Ellis, Hampton
6(198) Anthony Gray, Southern Miss
7(216) Harold Ayodele, Emporia State
8(269) Terry Griffin, Elizabeth City State
9(302) Terrell McClain, South Florida
10(355) Marcellis Williamson, Ohio
11(368) Ramsey Feagai, UNLV
12(386) Chris Neild, West Virgina
13(400) Xzavier Stewart, Illinois State