We've now made it through the offensive units in our review heading towards free agency. We are doing individual player recaps from the season, but these "free agency review" posts give us a chance to consider them in the context of the entire unit. These provide individual opinions on the position units, but I think most of us can find quite a few good things to say about the 49ers defensive line.
The 49ers let nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin walk in free agency this past year, which ended up creating a modest domino effect at two positions. Former left defensive end Isaac Sopoaga took over as the nose tackle, while former pass rush specialist Ray McDonald signed a five year contract and took over as left defensive end. It's safe to say the 49ers were probably happy with the outcome of this decision.
The defensive line is in excellent shape heading into the 2012 offseason. The team will eventually need to find a replacement for Justin Smith, but for now, the only free agent on the line is Will Tukuafu, who is an exclusive rights free agent. Under that tag, Tukuafu is free to sign a new contract, but he can only sign with the 49ers. So basically, the line remains intact for another year behind all-world defensive line coach Jim Tomsula!
On a side note, Aldon Smith will be discussed with the outside linebackers, even though he did much of his work as a defensive end in the nickel defense.
Is there anything left to be said about Justin Smith? The 49ers defense played excellent team defense, but Justin Smith was as valuable as anybody on that unit. As MM put it, "[h]e made every play, he fulfilled every duty ... [i]t's impossible to poke holes in Smith's season."
There is always the concern that he will inevitably succumb to age, but for now, he remains an absolute monster on the defense line. He was there for the grunt work nobody sees taking up multiple blockers to open up holes for the linebackers. He also had high impact, high profile players, including running down Jeremy Maclin and forcing a fumble, batting down Eli's late pass in the first 49ers-Giants game, and his dominance of Jermon Bushrod in the NFC divisional championship round.
I cannot honestly see a single thing to criticize about Justin Smith.
Over the course of his previous six NFL seasons, Isaac Sopoaga had never really popped on folks radars. He got most of his time at left defensive end, but also worked some backup nose tackle work as needed. He was never spectacular, he was just kind of there.
This season, Sopoaga took over for Aubrayo Franklin as the team's nose tackle. His role did not allow for monster statistics, but he played a key role in an historically great rush defense. Ice was there to occupy blockers and open up lanes for the linebackers, and really deserves some credit for the huge tackle numbers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis racked up. They deserve plenty of credit on their own, but Sopoaga supported their success.
Sopoaga is a free agent after this coming season, wrapping up his five year contract signed in 2008. He will turn 31 just prior to week one. I don't think the team will be looking to give him another five year deal, but I could very well see him getting quietly locked up for another three years sometime this offseason.
Speaking of five year contracts, I'd say this one worked out well. Prior to 2011, McDonald had been utilized primarily in nickel situations due to his impressive pass rushing skills. In letting Aubrayo Franklin leave, it created a domino effect that put McDonald in a position to claim a starting role at left defensive end. I was never concerned about his pass rushing skills, but without a ton of starting experience in the NFL, it was up in the air what we might expect in other phases of the game.
Well, McDonald has developed into a strong all around defensive end in the 49ers current 3-4. He continued to excel in the pass rush, but more importantly, he showed an ability to play strong run defense and become a complete every-down lineman. This is not shocking, but it was still a bit of a pleasant surprise. Given that he worked out with Justin Smith during the offseason, I suppose even pleasant surprise isn't enough.
The one drawback was McDonald dealt with some hamstring injuries that limited him at times during the season. I'm not sure what is needed to keep him healthy in that regard, but hopefully that can get cleared up sufficiently moving forward.
RJF was the primary backup for the defensive line in 2011. When Ray McDonald went down with his hamstring injuries, Ricky Jean stepped in at left defensive end. When Isaac Sopoaga went down with a staph infection early in the season Ricky Jean stepped in at nose tackle. In his work in both instances, RJF was perfectly solid.
The 49ers drafted him as a seventh round pick in 2009 and he has worked out quite well as a depth guy. He slide due to some NCAA rules stuff that is a little difficult to figure out (as it generally is) and the 49ers are benefitting. The primary question with Ricky Jean Francois now is if the 49ers will try to work him in a bit more next year. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald played whistle to whistle when healthy. Could there be some value in getting them a bit more rest and getting RJF into the lineup a bit more?
Speaking of draft gems, the 49ers signed Demarcus Dobbs as an undrafted free agent this past year and the development process seems to be moving in the right direction. Dobbs had as good a training camp as any rookie on the 49ers roster and earned a spot on the 53-man roster. He was looking at being a weekly inactive, but then Will Tukuafu went down with a wrist injury and Dobbs found himself active in 12 games.
Dobbs spent most of his time on special teams, which goes to show his athleticism. As the team heads into 2012 OTAs and training camp, Dobbs will battle Will Tukuafu and Ricky Jean Francois for playing time. I suspect he'll remain behind him on the depth chart, but it will be interesting to see how the team utilizes both defensive ends.
The 49ers other undrafted free agent on the roster is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Ian Williams. He was considered one of the better UDFAs on the market and he showed why with a very solid training camp and preseason for the 49ers. He made the 53-man roster and was active in one game against Tampa Bay. He and Dobbs both got a decent amount of playing time in the blowout win.
Williams will likely remain behind Isaac Sopoaga on the depth chart and continue to learn the craft. I mentioned above how I could see the 49ers signing Ice to a shorter deal, but if Williams impresses again in training camp and gets active a bit more during the 2012 season, maybe they roll the dice with the youngster.
Like everybody else listed above, Tukuafu put together a solid training camp and earned a 53-man roster spot. He was ahead of Dobbs and Williams on the depth chart at defensive line before suffering a wrist injury early in the season. He and Dobbs will do battle in training camp for defensive end snaps. Ricky Jean Francois will be battling them as well, but RJF likely is a step ahead of both on the depth chart.