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Defensive Line: Long look back, brief look forward

In looking at the 49ers defense, the front seven is generally a fairly quiet group.  Obviously you've got Pro Bowlers like Patrick Willis and Justin Smith (even if it was because of injury, I'll still refer to him as such), but as we mentioned in discussing the outside linebackers, you don't think much about them and then come the end of the game you realize they've put on an impressive effort.  The defensive line personifies this across the board as a unit that handles its business in an unassuming manner.

There are some talented guys on draft boards and in free agency this offseason, but I really wonder how much money the team is going to invest in additional players.  Obviously you're always looking to improve, but how much do they need on the line at this point?  Kentwan Balmer hasn't exactly set the world on fire up to this point, but I think they'll give it another spin in 2010 and make a decision at that point what to do next.

Justin Smith

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Justin Smith 16 6 65 0 0 0 40 15 55

After years of excellent but under-the-radar play, Justin Smith was finally rewarded this season with his first Pro Bowl appearance.  His numbers were actually down from last year (1 less sack, 18 fewer tackles), but as is always the case with Smith, it felt like he was all over the field all the time.  In 2008, Mike Nolan used him all over the field in 7 of the 8 front seven positions at some point or another.  Once Mike Singletary took over, Smith settled in at right defensive end.  The defensive ends in the 3-4 are not going to put up monster numbers.  They often are there to clear space for the OLBs to bust through and make the plays.  Nonetheless, Justin Smith still was a big-time impact player and a leader of this defense.

As we head into 2010 and the potential of an uncapped year, salary discussions don't exactly jump out as much.  However, if the league comes through this season with a salary cap on the other end, Smith is in a fairly decent position contract-wise.  The team loaded up year 2 of his contract (2009) with almost a quarter of the cap charge ($10.583 million), with the remaining years all under $10 million.  He's signed through 2013, which would put him at 34 by the time his contract expires.  He won't exactly be a young pup, but if he makes it to the last year of his deal, he won't exactly be a drain on the team.  For the next couple years though he'll be the anchor of that defensive line.

After the jump we look at the rest of the defensive line and the options on the market...

Aubrayo Franklin

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Aubrayo Franklin 16 2 14 1 10 0 26 11 37

Franklin's performance in 2009 might have some people thinking, "Oh it's just a contract year push."  Well, I'd say it's been more like a two-year push, or at least a year and a half push for Aubrayo Franklin.  After a very quiet first year with the 49ers, Aubrayo Franklin came on strong in 2008 and really made a name for himself in 2009.  While Franklin isn't exactly a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle, he handles the role he's been assigned with great skill.  I lost count of the number of times he burst through the offensive line to take down a running back in the backfield.  He showed some decent pass defense abilities with 3 pass deflections and an interception.  All in all, he's provided a strong, steady presence in the middle of the 3-4.

Of course, given his big push over the last two seasons, the issue naturally turns to money.  Patrick Willis has gone on record in support of re-signing Aubrayo Franklin.  Obviously there are other opinions to be considered, but Willis is one of the guys who has benefited from Franklin's strong play, and he knows it.  At this point in time there are no updates on contract negotiations.  The 49ers would appear content to simply slap him with the franchise tag and see what they can do from there.  If the team uses the franchise tag they get a sizable window of time to try and re-sign him before the tender must be signed.  The question in considering a long-term deal is whether he'll maintain such a high level of play.  He turns 30 this August, so it's questionable even how long a deal you would want to give him.

If you were GM, how would you handle this contract situation?  Obviously you can franchise him, but if you'd elect to do that, what else would you do in terms of long-term planning at the nose tackle position.

Isaac Sopoaga

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Isaac Sopoaga 16 1 8 0 0 0 19 10 29

Isaac Sopoaga is a guy I've always had a tough time assessing.  Given his role in the 3-4, that's not exactly shocking.  Of course, Justin Smith and Aubrayo Franklin play in the same 3-4 and people are quick to jump on their bandwagon (and rightfully so).  Sopoaga doesn't put up the monster numbers, but he's another guy who seems to be doing what he needs to do whether it be opening up holes for the OLB behind him, or closing off a potential running lane for a running back.  He's no superstar, but he seems to do the little things.  I'd love to hear more informed opinions on the work of Isaac Sopoaga.

Given the need to develop Kentwan Balmer, the question is how this affects Isaac Sopoaga, among others.  Thanks to a 5-year deal signed in 2008, Sopoaga is locked up through 2012 with reasonable cap figures.  If Balmer can actually turn into a valuable asset, will Sopoaga drift into the background as a guy who provides some depth, or does the team move to some kind of platoon at the left defensive end spot?

Ray McDonald

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Ray McDonald 16 3 19 0 0 0 6 2 8

Ray McDonald doesn't put up mind-blowing statistics, but he appears to be turning into an impact player in the pass rush.  McDonald is fast becoming known for his ability to block field goals (replay is about 25 seconds in).  This season he managed a blocked field goal and a blocked extra point.  He has proven himself to be a solid pass rush specialist.  I doubt we'll ever see him as an everydown player, but he fills a specific role quite capably.  McDonald has his struggles with jumping offsides at times, but generally when we hear his name called, it's because he's just made an impact play.  You need those kind of role players to help take your team to the next level.

McDonald is actually a free agent after this coming season.  His free agent status will depend on what happens with the collective bargaining agreement.  If this offseason's rules roll over to 2011, McDonald would be a restricted free agent.  Of course, who knows what will end up happening with the labor strife.  For now, the 49ers could probably lock him up fairly cheap.  Although, McDonald and his agent may think they can find somebody else out there who would give him more money and insert him into the starting lineup.

Kentwan Balmer

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Kentwan Balmer 11 0 0 0 0 0 5 7 12

Balmer's 2008 rookie season, while not completely lost, did not see a whole lot of development for him.  When you're a defensive lineman who has almost as many kick returns as tackles, something clearly is amiss.  As one of the up-men (not sure if that's the proper term) in the kick return unit, Balmer has ended up with 7 kick returns in his two seasons as a 49er.  Of course, given that he was drafted in the first round as a defensive lineman, those return numbers have become more of a sick joke than anything else.

In 2009, before a torn labrum ended his season in early December, Balmer was slowly gotten more playing time.  While it's probably too soon to label him a bust, another poor season in 2010 could end the Kentwan Balmer 49ers experience before it even gets going.  I took a look at some of MM's player-by-player reviews for last season (or at least the ones I could find), and it's generally a mixed bag of comments.  There are times it sounds like Balmer is making improvements, and there are also times when he struggles.  I know one comment I've read a lot around here is that he really would have been better suited as a 4-3 defensive lineman.  Any further thoughts on that?  This coming training camp will be a big one for him.  It seems like the team could rotate him along the line and mix in some time for him at nose tackle on occasion.  Part of the problem with assessing his development is knowing where he actually belongs on the field.

Demetric Evans

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Demetric Evans 14 1.5 14 0 0 0 5 7 12

Evans signed a 2-year deal last offseason and has spent his time as a reserve lineman for the team.  He'll be 31 at the beginning of the 2010 season and depending on what happens this offseason, he could quickly find himself on the bubble in training camp.

Ricky Jean-Francois

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Ricky Jean-Francois 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

As as seventh round pick, not a whole lot was expected of RJF, and he more or less met expectations.  He saw some action on special teams and on the defense in late December, but otherwise was inactive the whole season.  Even with low expectations, the 2010 training camp is big for him.  He'll need to show he can actually bring something to the table and earn a roster spot.  I really hope he can at least prove himself better than Demetric Evans.  Evans made contributions last season, but it'd be nice to get a much younger guy in there in that rotational depth role.

Looking Forward
Free agency
First off, for a simple alphabetical rundown, check out this on defensive ends and defensive tackles.  Football's Future provides some good info, but the one problem is that they've included a bunch of outside linebackers in the mix.  So take it for what it's worth.  At this point, given what the 49ers have in place, I don't know if I see them adding much more than camp bodies.  Nonetheless there are some talented individuals on the market.

2010 NFL Draft
In looking at draft options, the defensive line requires a bit of massaging of the possibilities because many players make a position change when they get into the NFL.  A lot of college defensive ends are way too undersized to be effective at the next level, so they become outside linebackers more often than not.  Of course some might end up being effective as 4-3 defensive ends, but not as 3-4 defensive ends.  For now I've posted the rankings for 3-4 DTs and 3-4 DEs.  If you'd like to view the rankings for 4-3 DEs and DTs, click on the draft link above.

Overall Rank 3-4 Defensive Tackle School
Dan Williams Tennessee
Terrence Cody Alabama
Cam Thomas North Carolina
Jeff Owens Georgia
Boo Robinson Wake Forest
Martin Tevaseu UNLV
Jaron Baston Missouri
Abe Koroma Western Illinois


Overall Rank 3-4 Defensive End School
Ndamukong Suh Nebraska
Carlos Dunlap Florida
Jared Odrick Penn State
Corey Wootton Northwestern
Alex Carrington Arkansas State
Arthur Jones Syracuse
Mike Neal Purdue
Vince Oghobaase Duke
Linval Joseph East Carolina
Clifton Geathers South Carolina
Doug Worthington Ohio State
John Fletcher Wyoming