Over the last couple week we've been tracking SB Nation's rankings of various positions. Thanks to them starting on the defensive side of the ball, the 49ers have been highly ranked thus far. SB Nation's Ryan Van Bibber ranked the cornerbacks sixth, the safeties seventh and the linebackers first. Yesterday he dropped his defensive line rankings, and he has the 49ers on top of that list as well.
The 49ers made two changes to their line last season as they moved Isaac Sopoaga over to nose tackle and inserted Ray McDonald into the starting lineup at left defensive end after signing him to a long term extension. While Ray McDonald has always had talent, and Isaac Sopoaga has always been a big dude, there were still question marks about how they would pan out alongside Justin Smith.
It was safe to say, questions asked, questions answered. After starting his career as a rotational lineman, McDonald had a breakthrough season opposite Justin Smith. Although Sopoaga was not a flashy nose tackle, he did a great job occupying blockers and opening up holes for the 49ers dynamic inside linebackers to make plays.
The one concern heading into last season was depth. Ricky Jean Francois proved himself to be a very solid backup, filling in for Sopoaga for one game and McDonald for one game. There are still some concerns if any of the starters were to miss extended time. Each positional unit has something to watch for in training camp, and for the defensive line, it will be about the development of Demarcus Dobbs, Will Tukuafu and Ian Williams.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that we'll see Dobbs, Tukuafu and Williams getting a lot of playing time in the preseason. After Smith-Sopoaga-McDonald, I suspect we'd see a second unit of Dobbs-RJF-Tukuafu, with NT Ian Williams getting some time with that second unit as well. Williams in particular will need to show some signs of improvement from last preseason if he is going to earn a roster spot in his second season. He spent most of the year inactive due to the numbers game at nose tackle, but with Sopoaga in his walk year, he will be looking to prove he could provide something long term.