The 49ers did not address the defensive end in the draft, unless you count Bruce Miller; which I don't. So, there is a need for depth at this position moving forward. Ray McDonald and Demetric Evans will be free agents, which leaves the 49ers incredibly thin at defensive end.
Even if the 49ers are able to retain the services of McDonald, I believe they will look for some outside help via free agency. They could look for a hybrid DE/OLB or just a pure 3-4 defensive end.
The good news is that there are ample options for San Francisco when it comes to 3-4 defensive ends in the free agent market. After the jump I will take a look at their options.
Free Agents Under Any System
Jason Babin, Tennessee Titans
2010 Stats: 58 Tackles, 44 Solo, 12.5 Sacks
Analysis: Babin has been up and down for years. In fact, he spent the 2008 season with three different teams. Initially, he came up big early with the Houston Texans, but since he has struggled a bit. Well, that all changed in 2010 when Babin recorded a career high 12.5 sacks for Tennessee. He has the physical tools and technique to be a solid pass rush specialist, but teams are going to be weary to give him a long term deal due to his up and down history.
At 265 pounds he is probably too small to play defensive end in a 3-4 system, however, Babin could be an upgrade over Travis LaBoy at the OLB position for San Francisco. It all depends on what the market is for him because I am not prepared for the 49ers to offer a long term contract to Babin.
Dave Ball, Tennessee Titans
2010 Stats: 30 Tackles, 20 Solo, 7 Sacks, 5 Passes Defended
Analysis: Local boy from Fairfield, Ball may want to return home to San Francisco. He had a breakout 2010 season recording 7 sacks In Ball you are looking at a pass rush specialist from the defensive end position. He should attract some interest in the
Raheem Brock, Seattle Seahawks
2010 Stats: 32 Tackles, 26 Solo, 9 Sacks, 3 Passes Defended, 2 Forced Fumbles
Analysis: Brock is getting up there in age, but he still contributes a great deal. He fits perfectly into the 3-4 system and would be a nice stopgap for San Francisco. Additionally, addition by subtraction because Seattle will be losing there top sack man. I think Brock would be an ideal candidate for the defensive end position over the course of the next season or two.
Andre Carter, Washington Redskinse
2010 Stats: Carter only compiled 2.5 sacks last season, but a lot of that had to do with him playing out of position. He had never played outside linebacker, however, Washington decided it would be a great idea to move him there after having success as a defensive end for the better part of a decade. I think a reunion with Carter would make a lot of sense for San Francisco. That said, he is a marginal 3-4 defensive end in terms of size.
Shaun Ellis, New York Jets
2010 Stats: 36 Tackles, 26 Solo, 4.5 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble
Analysis: At 34 years old Ellis is on his last legs as an NFL player, but he could be a nice short term option for San Francisco opposite Justin Smith. He has the ideal size for a 3-4 system and has been playing in one for most of his career with the New York Jets. You would be looking at a part time player in Ellis, who has a history of getting to the QB.
Cullen Jenkins, Green Bay Packers
2010 Stats: 18 Tackles, 13 Solo, 7 Sacks
Analysis: It is hard to imagine Green Bay letting Jenkins go, but that may actually happen with the crop of younger players they currently have. He is another part time player that would fill the role as a pass rush specialist. Despite only recording 132 career tackles, Jenkins does have 29 sacks during that span, including seven in 2010.
Robaire Smith, Cleveland Browns
2010 Stats: 25 Tackles, 13 Solo, 0 Sacks (5 Games Played)
Analysis: Not much to look at here. The 49ers already have Soap to fill the role Smith did with the Cleveland Browns. Not great a getting QB pressures, but solid in terms of filling up blockers to free pass rushing linebackers. Sound familiar?
Marcus Spears, Dallas Cowboys
2010 Stats: 19 Tackles, 11 Solo, 0 Sacks (8 Games Played)
Analysis: I think it is safe to say that Spears was a bust for the Dallas Cowboys. The 20th overall pick in 2005, Spears has only recorded 8 total sacks in his five year career. That said, he has been a full time starter for Dallas and has been able to free up DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer coming from the corners. I think he may actually be an upgrade over Soap and could fill a rotational need for San Francisco. Additionally, Spears is young and would come relatively cheap.
Possible Free Agents Under New 2011 Free Agent Rules: Each player will have accrued enough NFL experience to hit the open market if a new CBA is agreed to. I will indicate tender offers as they relate to each player below. Tender offers mean that their current team offered some sort of restricted free agent tender. This tender means that the team signing each player would have to give up what was tendered.
Ray Edwards, Minnesota Vikings
2010 Stats: 37 Tackles, 28 Solo, 8 Sacks
Contract Situation: Minnesota gave Edwards a 2nd round tender, but he has refused to play for them on a one year tender. This means that his time with the Vikings is up. If a new collective bargaining agreement is made, Edwards will have the opportunity to walk as an unrestricted free agent. If not, Minnesota will look to trade him
Analysis: At a mere 270 pounds, some say that Edwards is too small to play defensive end in the 3-4 system. I disagree with this notion; he plays much bigger than he actually is. Edwards is extremely strong up front and has solid pass rushing technique. Additionally, he has been a consistent performer of the last couple of seasons. At 26 years old he is in his prime as well. I think San Francisco may want to take a look at Edwards this off-season if he is an unrestricted free agent. Even if Edwards is a restricted free agent it shouldn't cost more than a 3rd round pick to acquire his services.
Mathias Kiwanuka, New York Giants
2010 Stats: 11 Tackles, 9 Solo, 4 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble (3 Games Played)
Contract Situation: Original round tender (1st), but will be an unrestricted free agent if a new collective bargaining agreement is made.
Analysis: Got off to a great start in 2010 before getting injured. Kiwanuka has a knack for getting to the QB, but is only an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. The 49ers really have no need there, so they are going to look elsewhere.
Charles Johnson, Carolina Panthers
2010 Stats: 62 Tackles, 51 Solo, 11.5 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble
Contract Situation: Will be an unrestricted free agent unless the NFL sets 2010 rules for free agency, which is highly unlikely because of the impending CBA agreement. Johnson does not want to be back with Carolina, so look for him to break the bank elsewhere.
Analysis: Johnson could be a fit for the 49ers, but I expect them to spend there large sums of money at other positions. You are looking at a contract of between 40-50 million dollars for a player that had only one standout season. That said, Johnson has the ability and upside to sustain what he did in 2010. The problem is that he isn't a great fit for the 3-4.
Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions
2010 Stats: 33 Tackles, 23 Solo, 8.5 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble, 5 Passes Defended
Contract Situation: 1st and 3rd round tenders, pretty much as good as being franchised by Detroit. Will be a restricted free agent regardless of the CBA outcome.
Analysis: A horrible fit for the 3-4, Avril is a borderline outside linebacker/defensive end in any system. At 250 pounds he is extremely small to play in the front. Either way, Detroit is going to retain his services in 2011.
Ray McDonald, San Francisco 49ers
2010 Stats: 19 Tackles, 13 Solo, 0 Sacks, 1 INT, 1 TD, 2 Passes Defended
Contract Situation: Offered an unknown tender by San Francisco (possibly 2nd round), McDonald will probably end up an unrestricted free agent and the 49ers will face stiff competition to retain his services.
Analysis: McDonald has emerged as one of the better 3-4 inside pass rushers in the NFL. He was second to Justin Smith in QB pressures for defensive ends running that scheme in 2010. Look for the 49ers to make a strong push in retaining his services once free agency beings. You could be looking at a 20-30 million dollar contract. Too steep for a player that has recorded five sacks in 4 seasons?
Overview: With Demetric Evans and Ray McDonald set to be free agents the 49ers are thin a defensive end right now. That said, they have a myriad of different options once free agency begins. Do they dole out 5-6 million a year for McDonald? Or do they look to upgrade that position with a player like Ray Edwards? I am extremely happy these decisions are mine to make. I guess this is why Baalke etc... get paid the money.
I personally believe the 49ers would be well suited to dole out the money to McDonald and add another veteran at a chap price. Two Tennessee Titan players, Dave Ball and Jason Babin, would make sense here; it just depends on what the market is for them in terms of annual salary.
Ray Edwards would be a perfect fit opposite Justin Smith and could rotate with Ray McDonald to make up a pretty solid 1-2-3 punch at the defensive end position. I would even offer Minnesota a 3rd round pick if he ends up being an unrestricted free agent.
Either way, look for the 49ers to be active at the defensive end position once free agency begins.