The San Francisco 49ers released Ray McDonald Wednesday morning, which opens up a roster spot, and raises questions about how playing time will be split on the defensive line these final two weeks. Prior to his release, McDonald started opposite Justin Smith, with Quinton Dial playing nose tackle in the 3-4. McDonald and Smith moved inside to defensive tackle when the 49ers went into the nickel, with both getting breathers from Tony Jerod-Eddie and Tank Carradine.
The 49ers will be looking at even more of a rotation now that McDonald is gone. Smith will start on one end, and I suspect Tony Jerod-Eddie will start on the other end in the base defense. Tank would likely get some work behind both Smith and TJE, but his real chance for a boost in playing time will be when the 49ers go into their nickel.
Tank spoke with the media after the 49ers announced McDonald's release, and he seemed to have that idea in mind. The 49ers could spend a decent amount of time in the nickel. The San Diego Chargers run game has been abysmal for much of the season. They lost Keenan Allen to a broken collarbone, so they have their own issues to figure out, but they are a pass-first attack, using 3+ wide receivers 70 percent of the time.
Aside from Tank and TJE, Quinton Dial could see a boost in his snaps. He has been playing nose tackle, but as Vic Fangio pointed out, he was not expected to fill that role at the beginning of training camp. He has the build and skill-set to potentially play the 5-technique role, so we could see him help spell Justin Smith to some extent on Saturday.
There have been some suggesting the team could promote Lawrence Okoye from the practice squad. I suppose that (or Mike Purcell) is possible, but I am not sure I see Okoye getting that shot at this point. There is some value from an evaluation perspective, but if the team is just trying to get two more wins, I don't see it happening. I am fine with just seeing more of Tank and Dial the rest of the way.