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Defensive Line: Long look back, brief look forward

Although the pass rush as a whole has been awful at times, the defensive line has gotten a lot of flack in this debate.  It's sort of fitting that one area that might need the most improvement is one of the last major units we discuss in these recaps.  While the line has struggled, there is some serious talent that could be the foundation for any improvement.  Given the implementation of a primarily 3-4 defense since Singletary took over, we can finally get a more structured idea of where to make improvements.

Justin Smith: Smith was signed to a big time contract last spring, so struggles from the weight of the deal might not have been entirely shocking.  However, Smith was an absolute beast for the 49ers. He finished with 73 total tackles, 7 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.  The numbers don't jump out at you, but anybody who watched the 49ers this season will point to the impact he made in every single game. 

Under Nolan, Smith was bouncing around between six of the seven front-seven positions.  When Singletary took over, Smith settled in as a straight defensive end.  He was effective in both situations, but playing just one position allowed him to concentrate on the same thing each time, rather than adjusting every single play.  That should be a big plus heading into 2009.

Aubrayo Franklin: Franklin reminds me of the proverbial riddle wrapped up in an enigma.  His first season with the 49ers was not pretty.  He signed a 3-year deal in 2007 for a relatively inexpensive amount but did not contribute much of anything.  This past year started in a similar fashion before he really started taking over.  The difference, according to Franklin, was no longer having to play in a two-gap technique.  As Franklin put it, "The play-calling been to our advantage. There's a change of pace every now and then. I'm not just sitting there in a regular two-gap. [Manusky] gives us a call where we're all moving and taking that bull's eye off our chests."

Franklin is a free agent after this season.  Considering he's finally finding his way, that would certainly seem to move his price north.  It's been discussed ad nauseum, but getting a big young "nose tackle of the future" is something that should probably be addressed this offseason.  Of course, if you think Franklin can consistently perform like he did much of this past season, maybe not?

Ray McDonald: I'll admit it: McDonald is one of those guys for whom I have that irrational fandom.  I was convinced he could be that pass rush threat the 49ers lacked.  As we all saw this past season, that didn't quite happen.  Instead, he's shown a big problem with jumping offsides.  Maybe he finds his way in his third year, maybe not.  I don't know what to expect, but for now, the 49ers definitely need to bring in some more competition at that end position opposite Smith.  I think this offseason will be key for him.  He's close to reaching the point of the 49ers deciding to make a permanent move elsewhere.  He's definitely in need of a strong camp.

Isaac Sopoaga: Whatever are we gonna do with the big Samoan?  As sfgfan mentioned, someone did mention Sopoaga being a bit raw.  I actually agree with that assessment.  He's been in the league four years, and has never really seemed to find his way.  Of course, part of that may be Mike Nolan jerking people around with his 3-4/4-3 hybrid.  It's hard for a player to understand his role and develop if he's expected to switch between roles constantly.  Justin Smith did it, but he's shown himself to be immensely talented.  Sopoaga is certainly talented, but not quite on the level of Smith.

Maybe he's just not suited for the 3-4?  It will be interesting to see what his role is in 2009, particular after free agency and the draft.  He signed a five year extension prior to last season, so they better figure something out.  However, I honestly can't figure out where he belongs in the defense.  Any thoughts?

Kentwan Balmer: I think the stat that tells you everything you need to know about Balmer's rookie campaign is this:  He finished with 7 total tackles and 5 kick returns. Blamer was often the guy who caught the short kickoffs and he managed to average 9.4 yards a return.  Considering he's north of 300 pounds, way to go Kentwan.

But seriously, he's got a year under his belt and the 49ers don't really know what they've got in Balmer.  He seems to be more a tall and lanky type of guy (as lanky as one can be at 315 pounds), so he might be a bit too big to fill the nose tackle role.  The question is whether he can take up blockers and create space as a defensive end.  In the 3-4, the OLBs bring a lot of the pressure and the defensive line clears the way for them.  I'd expect Balmer will get a lot of playing time in the preseason.  It might not tell us much, but it's better than no playing time at all.

Ronald Fields: Fields is a guy who's really struggled to find his way in four seasons with the 49ers.  He gets mixed in as a defensive end and defensive tackle but has never really found a specific role.  Scouts Inc. indicated he "looks" more like a nose tackle or 4-3 defensive tackle.  Of course, given that he's an unrestricted free agent, the 49ers might be willing to let him walk if he wants too much money.  I indicated he'd be gone in my early predictions, but a cheap sticker price could keep him in town.  He's 27, which is still relatively young, but it might be worth just stocking up in the draft with even younger guys with more upside.

Due to length, we take our look forward at free agency and the draft after the jump.

Looking Forward
There is a lot of talent in free agency and the draft all along the defensive line.  At nose tackle, B.J. Raji is of course the first name that comes to mind for most folks.  at the Senior Bowl he had a great week of practice before disappearing in the game.  That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, but I'd imagine Singletary and Manusky could keep him in line. 

Briandean mentioned waiting, but guys like Vince Wilfork and Casey Hampton were first round picks who have solidified the nose tackle position for the Patriots and Steelers respectively.  Maybe Raji could be that guy for us?  Emphasis on maybe.  The 49ers could also wait on a guy like Roy Miller from Texas or Myron Pryor from Kentucky.  They're a bit closer to 300 pounds and would need to add some weight, but they could be low risk, high reward types.

In terms of free agency, a lot of the defensive linemen mentioned would be more likely to fill an OLB role, we won't be discussing you.  A guy like Julius Peppers is a definite option in free agency, but more as an outside linebacker that might occasionally drop down to end.  So instead, maybe an Igor Olshansky type?  He's a 6-6, 309 pound 26-year old.  Those guys don't come along very often.  His main problem has been consistency, which is why the Chargers are supposedly not expected to try and re-sign him.  If the 49ers could get him at a decent deal, would people be down for something like that?

Oh and no I won't forget big Albert Haynesworth.  His people have been working with the Titans on an extension, but until it's signed, he certainly remains an option.  To this point he's been primarily 4-3 defensive tackle.  So, could he move inside as a nose tackle?  I'm not a big Haynesworth fan, but it's more because I'd rather go a bit younger with a pure nose tackle.  I'm sure others think differently.

In the end, I think it's safe to predict that nose tackle will be addressed strictly through the draft.  Defensive end may be as well, but a guy like Olshansky could be an option (maybe PFT can get that rumor going!).