Yesterday, we took a look at Anthony Dixon and our confidence in him as the primary backup in 2010, and I think the response is mostly justified. At the very least, Dixon's presence on the roster prevents anybody from being served in the case of it "being on." The first of these confidence posts took a look at Ricky Jean Francois and the plausibility of him being the starting nose tackle, and the response was probably a little too positive to be realistic. The guy he'd be replacing is a free agent, and he may not be back in San Francisco next season, but I made my case for Aubrayo Franklin returning in 2011 last week, and I stand by it.
Aubrayo Franklin is a guy that I seriously wanted out of San Francisco going into 2009. His 2008 was poor, he got pushed around and beat on more than half of the snaps he took. I was looking for the 49ers to get a nose tackle in the draft or free agency, but now I'm glad they waited until the seventh round to do so. Franklin was quite possibly the best nose tackle in the league in 2009 - actually, no - Franklin was definitely the best nose tackle in the league in 2009. Florida Danny backs me up on that front:
Franklin was the best 3-4 NT, the 3rd-best DT, and the 5th-best DL in the NFL with respect to stop rate against the run. Specifically, 93% of the Franklin's tackles in the run game resulted in an inefficient (aka unsuccessful) gain for the opposing OFF. So Franklin, who plays a position in which the purpose of life is to stop the run, is the most efficient run-stopper at that position, and he doesn't go to the Pro Bowl?
It really is a shame that Franklin didn't make the Pro Bowl, but either way, his play led to the 49ers hitting him with the franchise tag going into 2010. Franklin held out through the majority of the team's offseason activities and missed the preseason, allowing the aforementioned Jean Francois to progress mightily (shame he can't do it at the same rate this year). Unfortunately, it was very clear that he didn't work as hard as he should have while holding out. It's not secret that the 49ers as a whole started off slow and generally got beat down, but with Franklin, it was clear on almost every snap.
He was slow, and he lacked any kind of push, centers barreled over him and the guys in the middle behind him, Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis, suffered accordingly. Teams ran the ball better and quarterbacks were an awful lot more comfortable, and only by Justin Smith being Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga playing out of his mind did the 49ers not look absolutely woeful in regards to their front seven in the first half of 2010.
But he did eventually pick things up, and began playing up that 2009 level, around halfway through the season he started mauling people and playing out of his mind. Maybe it's because he realized that it was also a contract year, much like the year prior, and his best seasons have come in that instance. All that really matters is that he turned his play around and played as near to his 2009 form as he could have, though I still submit that he fell short in that regard. Still, he will be the best free agent nose tackle this offseason (providing Haloti Ngata stays put via a functioning franchise tag) and the 49ers absolutely need to make him a priority if they do not draft somebody early.
So how do we feel about Aubrayo, then? You have to consider a contract year, and whether or not he'll regress given a long term deal. If he were to sign in San Francisco, I imagine it would be something like a three-year deal. Voting a '10' implies that you have nothing but confidence in Aubrao to come back and be that dominating force at the nose, having a Pro Bowl season. A '7' implies just a very good player, does everything we ask him to, is a definite starter, but not quite on Pro Bowl level. A '5' implies that you may be underwhelmed by his play next year, but he'll still be good. Below that are varying degrees of regressing ability, be it indicative of a contract year, or perhaps you think 2009 was lightning in a bottle, or even that he's just losing technique as he gets older. Honestly, I would not be surprised by any result, at this point.