Here's a position that's honestly hard to gauge simply because the 49ers have not had a ton of success on the pass-rushing front with their outside linebackers. It's easy to tell when a defensive end is really good - in the 4-3. In the 3-4, you have to pay a lot more attention to identify the abilities of some guys. There were a couple things that were clear though, one of which is that the defensive ends appeared to play better this past season in comparison to the season prior, at least on one side.
They're players we don't pay too much attention to on gameday, but they often take an awful lot of criticisms later on (or occasionally receive a fair bit of praise) when people get a closer look at what actually went down. I still would say the 49ers had a serviceable line in 2010.
|2010 - Justin Smith||16||8.5||51.5||0||0||0||57||13||70|
Justin Smith was rewarded with his first Pro Bowl in 2009, and all of his numbers are up from that point. Wouldn't you know it, Smith was rewarded with another Pro Bowl to his name and he's very deserving. He was able to put up 8.5 sacks, a great number for a 3-4 defensive end, and shows the lack of production from the outside linebacker position. So, he's up 2.5 sacks from last season and he's got seventeen more tackles, which is pretty impresisve.
He may have 8.5 sacks, but I can tell you that he was most definitely in the face of opposing quarterbacks way more often than that. His job is to occupy blockers, stop the run, and apply pressure. The good thing about Justin Smith is that he can do all of those things at a very high level. The even better thing about Justin Smith is that he can do all of those things at said high level for a full sixty minutes each game for sixteen games every single time.
I can't remember a bad game from Smith, and I can't remember a game where I didn't identify him as one of the better players on the team. In my mind, he was one of the two best defensive players on the team in 2010.
After the jump, we take a look at the other defensive end options on the 49ers' roster, 2011 free agents for the position and of course, the 2011 NFL draft ...
|2010 - Isaac Sopoaga||14||1.5||9.5||0||0||0||17||8||25|
"Ice" played a lot better this season than he did the previous. I spoke earlier about the nature of the defensive end position and how hard it is to gauge, and I'll illustrate that by pointing out that Sopoaga actually had two less tackles in 2010 than he did in 2009, but it's almost unanimous among the fanbase that he had a better year.
He held down his side of the line well, but the important thing was his ability to occupy blockers. He did his job well, and he can't be blamed for lacking production at the OLB position. Well, he can't be fully blamed - obviously the position could stand to be upgraded, but as a starter, he was infinitely better than the guy-who-is-supposed-to-occupy-space-but-doesn't role he did last year.
There probably needs to be more out of the position going forward, but Soap's increased level of play makes it a luxury that the 49ers can afford to pass up on until later in the draft.
|2010 - Ray McDonald||12||0||0||1||31||0||13||6||19|
McDonald disappointed this season in the pass-rush department. Then again, there were other times he was solid. Which is disappointing. Am I making any sense to you? Probably not - so let me explain ... no, there is too much. Let me sum up.
Coming into 2010, McDonald was supposed to be much more consistent, an impact player off the bench in situations that called for him. He wasn't that in 2010, but he did have his moments. He should continue to operate in the role that he did in 2010, coming in to add to the pass rush, line up in nickel situations, and do his part on special teams. There's a lot of talent there, but it's still not realized.
His 2010 season was decent - nothing more, and nothing less.
My look forward will be decidedly brief today. I started this late like a fool, and I honestly don't know much about the draft prospects. Still, there are some solid options out there if the 49ers are looking to spend a little money, I'll just talk briefly about the options the 49ers will have going forward.
Ray McDonald is a free agent, and some teams might want to take a shot at him. I could see him landing in a lot of places, honestly, so the 49ers might be in the market for a new defensive end. Re-signing him is obviously an option. Mathias Kiwanuka will be one of the more sought after free agents. He looked fantastic until a season-ending neck injury, which won't be enough to deter teams from wanting to sign him.
Ray Edwards is young and fits the bill from Minnesota. I guess it's open to interpretation as to where you think he lands in a 3-4, but I'm going with end, obviously. There are some more options in free agency, so here's this link taking a quick look at some of the names.
There are some options in the draft, but the only player I'm familiar with is Cameron Jordan. A lot of folks have suggested that the 49ers would take him at pick seven. I personally believe that would be a mistake with the other needs, but you can't argue with getting a good player. You can look at Draft Tek's big board for the position and read some of the prospects.