The one thing that Aubrayo Franklin's departure may signal is the fact that Vic Fangio plans to utilize his defensive tackle differently then they have been used over the course of the last few seasons.
San Francisco currently doesn't have a player that has played NT on a full-time basis in the NFL and this could be cause for concern. However, you must understand that Fangio's scheme may be more of a rotational approach at this point. In fact, every single player a long the 49ers defensive line other than Ray McDonald has played defensive tackle either in college or the NFL
In the 49ers past defenses the NT position was utilized to take on a couple blockers and free up holes for pass rushing linebackers to get to the quarterback. Another aspect of their games was to clog the middle and prevent the running back from turning up field.
This worked well for San Francisco over the last couple of seasons where they had Franklin as an anchor a long that defensive line. It seems the 49ers plan to change this approach a great deal moving into the 2011 season under a new Defensive Coordinator.
Right now it would seem that San Francisco's defensive line depth isn't too great, but that really is just on the exterior because there is going to be a lot of different schemes utilized within it.
You are going to see Justin Smith move inside on occasion when San Francisco utilizes the 4-3 scheme. This won't happen a great deal, but it will be an aspect of their defense. In this scheme the ends will be Ray McDonald and Aldon Smith, with Justin and Soap anchoring the interior. This would give San Francisco two solid pass rushers on the outside and two players that can cover the draw or inside rush on the interior.
When San Francisco utilizes the 3-4, which will be a majority of the time; you are going to see something completely different. Smith and McDonald will man the ends, while Soap/RJF/Williams will be anchoring the interior. Again, this gives San Francisco what they are looking for in terms of that specific scheme
So, lets take a look at each player in the defensive tackle rotation:
Isaac Sopoaga: He has been waiting for an opportunity to be the starter at the NT position since being drafted by San Francisco in 2005. Sopoaga is an extremely undervalued defensive linemen in the NFL. Despite only having 6.5 sacks in six NFL season, he is extremely solid in the run game and can bull rush defenders into the offensive backfield. With Jim Tomsula being retained as Defensive Line Coach, I fully expect him to work with Soap a great deal during training camp in order to help the former end make the transition. You are looking at a player that was extremely solid in the run game, which is important for a 3-4 end. Now, he needs that to translate to the NT position. However, you are not looking at a three down player, instead there will be a rotation.
Ricky Jean-Francois: Francois, a 7th round pick in the 2009 draft has really impressed the coaching staff and observers the first couple years of his career. He is undersized for the traditional 3-4 NT role, but has the athletic ability to compensate for it. You will see him rotated in as NT in certain schemes and to give Soap a little bit of a rest. Francois also has the ability to move outside in obvious rushing downs, giving San Francisco a bulky front three in Francois, Smith and Soap.
Ian Williams: A big time sleeper in my books, Ian Williams is going to be part of the rotation in 2011. He was extremely solid inside at Notre Dame and took on blockers incredibly well. Williams did a great job in taking on double coverage in college to free up solid Notre Dame pass rushers. This is an ideal asset for a 3-4 NT. Williams was once ranked as a 3rd round selection before injury cost him the second half of the 2010 season for the Fighting Irish.
Justin Smith: Yes, I am going to put Smith on this list because he will play defensive tackle on certain 4-3 schemes. Smith has the bulk to play DT in traditional 4-3 defenses. He is extremely solid in the running game and can get don low on the defender on the interior.
Different defensive line schemes you may see
4-3 basis scheme: DE- Ray Mcdonald, DT- Justin Smith, DT- Isaac Sopoaga, DE- Aldon Smith
3-4 basic scheme: DE- Justin Smith, NT- Isaac Sopoaga, DE- Ray McDonald
4-3 rush defense scheme: DE- Ricky-Jean Francois, DT- Isaac Sopoaga, DT- Ian Williams, DE- Justin Smith
You are going to see a lot of different schemes as it relates to the defensive line. First, Jim Tomsula loves to mix it up, secondly Vic Fangio is a coordinator that has used different strategies within the same game. The 49ers have so many different options in terms of schemes that these players are going to stay fresh and be utilized to fit their specific strengths.
The 4-3 rush defense scheme is the one that really interests me. That is a lot of bulk out there that will make it incredibly hard to run against. Additionally, you have to understand that all four players a long that front can easily take on enough blockers to free up linebackers such as Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith or Ahmad Brooks rushing from the back three of the front seven.
I think we are going to be pleasantly surprised by how this rotation will help San Francisco's defense as the 2011 season moves a long. Additionally, this is another reason why San Francisco didn't make it a priority to re-sign Aubrayo Franklin.