The San Francisco 49ers start up OTAs today, and position battles move one small step closer to resolution. Yesterday, we took a look at the offensive positions up for grabs, and today we are going to take a look at the defensive positions up for grabs. OTAs will probably tell us less for the defensive position battles because offensive players generally have the advantage during these activities. There is no live contact, so we don't get bump-and-run drills or any real physicality.
Aside from Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver, how much do we really know about this group. I would be quite surprised to see Carlos Rogers get the axe, but I suppose anything is possible if Nnamdi or anybody else steps up over the next three months. I list everybody for the cornerback position because we just don't know who will end up where. The last two years, Rogers and Brown have started, and Culliver has come on in nickel situations. Now, a lot of it will be depend on what Nnamdi has left in the tank, and how the team feels Chris Culliver has progressed.
Leaders: I am fairly comfortable in the idea that Tarell Brown will be one of the two starting cornerbacks. I could very well see Chris Culliver emerging as the other starter at this point. The second starting cornerback spot is Carlos Rogers' to lose, but he slipped enough last year that I think his role will decrease.
Of course, that's where Nnamdi and Perrish Cox come into play. We don't know what Nnamdi has left, so it's hard to project where he will be at in August. As for Cox, he sat out the 2011 season, so this second year back in action will be an interesting one to follow. It sounds like Nnamdi is impressing at this point in the offseason workout program, but we can only take so much from that before we advance to full-padded workouts.
Backup outside linebacker
Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks will get the lion's share of the work at outside linebacker, but the 49ers need to find a third guy who can spell them more than just in blowouts. The 49ers need to be able to rotate their outside linebackers and have a fresh option to boost their pass rush. Parys Haralson is the veteran coming off a season on injured reserve, but his sack totals were declining as a starter each year from his career year.
The 49ers have a lot of unknown quantities after Haralson. Darius Fleming spent last season on the injured list and I know some here have discussed him as an inside linebacker option. Cam Johnson was on the practice squad most of the season, and then inactive late in the season. Corey Lemonier was a third-round pick who, much like Aldon Smith, will be making the transition from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker.
Leader: The real question here is how many outside linebackers the 49ers keep after Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. If they keep two, it would make sense to keep a veteran like Haralson and then Lemonier. If they keep one, Haralson is more likely to be on the chopping block. The 49ers kept three last year, but I think this year they go with a fourth. I honestly don't know what to make of where Fleming and Johnson end up. I think the team will try and slip one or both to the practice squad.
This is a mix of the free safety and third safety roles. Eric Reid will have the edge at free safety, but I could see the real battle being for that next role. Spillman has plenty of experience in the 49ers defense. Robinson and Thomas are each entering their second year, with Robinson spending most of the season inactive and Thomas spending the season on the practice squad. Darcel McBath was among the team's leading special teamers in 2013, but the team did not tender him as a restricted free agent, before signing him back on a one-year deal.
Leader: Reid is the leader at free safety, and I'd imagine C.J. Spillman is the leader behind him for additional safety play. Spillman and McBath have the benefit of extensive special teams experience, while Robinson and Thomas have a little more youth on their side. Robinson and Thomas will get plenty of opportunities in training camp. The question is whether or not they can take advantage of said opportunities. Both are practice squad-eligible, so we'll see what the addition of Reid means for both of them.
The belief seems to be that Dorsey is going to get this job, but I would expect some decent competition between Dorsey and Williams. Dorsey played in the 3-4 in Kansas City but he was exclusively a defensive end. Ian Williams has gotten time at nose tackle in the preseason each of the last two years, and the team recently rewarded him with a small contract extension. The 49ers drafted Dial in the fifth round, and he is a guy who will be expected to play all along the line.
Leader: All signs point to Dorsey right now, but given his lack of recent experience as a nose tackle, I don't think his hold on the job is as rock solid as others'. It could prove to be come August, but I want to see what Dorsey and Williams bring to the table in the preseason. Dorsey will likely be the starting nose tackle initially, but hopefully Williams gets some time against first team offenses. As for Dial? Well, I think he's looking at a potential Ricky Jean Francois role eventually.
Defensive line depth
The defensive line depth is looking more at the base 3-4 defensive end and the four-man front defensive tackle roles. Justin Smith won't last forever (as far as we can tell), so the 49ers drafted Tank Carradine as a potential long-term option in both roles. Glenn Dorsey's primary recent experience is as a 3-4 defensive end, but he has some versatility. He is considered by many to be the frontrunner at nose tackle, but given that the 49ers only spend 30-35% of the time in that base defense, additional versatility is a big help.
Demarcus Dobbs has gotten defensive end work in the preseason, but he focused primarily on special teams during this past regular season, becoming the 49ers leading special teams player (in terms of snaps). He has impressed as an undrafted free agent, but it has not yet translated to significant playing time. The 49ers additions of Carradine, Dorsey and Dial present a significant challenge to Dobbs, Jerod-Eddie and Tukuafu.
The biggest question mark on the 49ers defensive end position, and really on the roster as a whole, is Lawrence Okoye. He has no American football experience, but he has incredible raw athleticism. If he shows even a hint of NFL skill in the preseason, it is entirely possible the 49ers will have to keep him on the 53-man roster to prevent another team from claiming him off waivers. If that's the case, he would likely spend the season inactive. Any on-field impact would likely be on special teams, but literally anything is possible with Okoye.