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SB Nation breaks down defensive lines, linebackers and secondary

Danny Kelly put together a three part series looking at the best NFL defensive lines, linebackers and secondaries. We take a look at how he assessed the 49ers and the rest of the NFC West.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last couple weeks, I've dropped three separate posts in the Niners Nation layout. I decided this was worth an additional post because I think they were solid pieces of content worth an additional look. Danny Kelly of Field Gulls puts together content for, breaking down a variety of things related to the NFL. A lot of time he is breaking down film, but for now he is looking at the best defensive of and offensive units across the league. He started with defensive line, moved on to linebackers, and wrapped the defensive side by looking at secondaries. Over the next week or two, he'll break down offensive units.

Rather than simply rank the teams 1-32, he broke them down into groups. For each unit he looked at the "elite", "damn good", "contenders for the crown", "revamped" and "wild cards". Make sure and give the articles a read, but here are some quick thoughts on each of them.

Defensive line

In his first article, Danny took a look at the defensive line. His elite included the St. Louis Rams and the Carolina Panthers. He included the Arizona Cardinals among contenders for the crown, and then listed the Seattle Seahawks and our San Francisco 49ers as wild cards.

The comments got into the usual mess of some fans calling him biased. This specific article aside, while Danny is very much a hard core Seahawks fan, he is also a very knowledgeable football fan. I actually had a chance to finally meet him this week as he was in town for our NFL planning meetings. We had quite reasoned discussions about the 49ers and Seahawks. It was like dogs and cats living side-by-side!

But as to this specific article, I'd argue he was more than fair in his assessment of the 49ers. It is worth noting that his assessment of the defensive line, for 3-4 lines he included outside linebackers in with the line. It's obviously not a perfect assessment, but it is reasonable for the purposes of this kind of discussion:

I look at the Niners' defensive line group and see a cadre of elite players in Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, an extremely solid core in Dorsey, McDonald, Jerod-Eddie, Williams, Dobbs and Dial, and a couple of high-potential question marks in Carradine, Lemonier and Lynch. The question mark for this year, though, is what will happen with Aldon Smith. If Smith is on the field, you might put the Niners in the elite category because he's one of the most unstoppable pass-rushers in the NFL. If he's not there, San Francisco takes a hit, and their depth will be tested. In addition to Smith's status, Carradine and Lynch in particular should be interesting to watch this year as well.

The 49ers defensive front could be incredibly stout, but there are enough question marks that we don't know for certain how it will play out. Aldon Smith's potential suspension is the biggest question, but we also don't know how Justin Smith and Ray McDonald will continue to perform as each year progresses. I'm optimistic about them, but not 100 percent certain about what to expect.

In discussing the Seahawks, he included them as wild cards because of their free agency losses and the young, unproven talent they will slot in to the group in 2014. There is tremendous potential in the group, but we just don't know what to expect. Serious proven talent has departed, so we can't say anything with much certainty.


Even though NaVorro Bowman's return is a question mark, Danny listed the 49ers in the elite category with the Buffalo Bills. When healthy Bowman and Willis are the best duo in the league, but I think a reasoned argument can be made that this group either should be listed in "wild cards", or at least should have an asterisk on its elite status. I think Michael Wilhoite can be a capable replacement for Bowman, and I think Willis will be able to step his game up an extra notch with Bowman absent.

But there are still question marks while Bowman recovers. And even when Bowman gets back, we don't know how he'll perform after tearing up his knee. Ideally he performs well, but players respond in a variety of ways when returning from major knee surgery. Even with improvements in surgery and rehab, nothing is guaranteed when Bowman gets back.

Danny had the Seahawks in the "damn good" category as the only other NFC West team with a strong contingent of linebackers. Here are some of his thoughts on the Seahawks linebackers:

Bobby Wagner, like Kiko Alonso, fits the "new-school" mold as a fast-flowing, undersized sideline-to-sideline MIKE linebacker. He's incredibly instinctive and quick-reacting, and his 4.4 speed is apparent in his style of play. At the weakside spot, Seattle features K.J. Wright, whose size, length, and special ability to diagnose offensive plays mean he's rarely out of position. Opposite Wright, the Hawks rotate hybrid pass-rusher and strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin and Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith, utilizing their speed and athleticism to stop the run with vigor and cover a lot of ground underneath their excellent secondary.

Few teams have the speed at linebacker that the Seahawks' feature, and they upgraded that this year with the selection of highly-athletic Kevin Pierre-Louis, out of Boston College. Add a high-ceiling backup in Korey Toomer and an intriguing UDFA in Brock Coyle, and Seattle has one of the deepest and talented linebacker corps in the NFL.


It is not remotely surprising the Seahawks are at the top of this group. Even with the losses of Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond, this is an incredibly talented secondary. They return three All-Pros in Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Byron Maxwell will play opposite Sherman, and Jeremy Lane will slide into the rotation with a bit more regularity.

The elite group also included the New Orleans Saints, Cincinnati Bengals and the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals' secondary is not quite at the level of the Seahawks, but there's a lot of talent back there. They'll roll out Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie at cornerback, and Tyrann Mathieu alongisde rookie Deone Buchannon at safety. Aside from Cromartie, it's a young group, but it's also incredibly talented.

Danny wrote about the 49ers in the wild card section. And I'd have to agree with that. The 49ers secondary has been overhauled, and while there is talent in the group, there are also questions to be answered. We know Tramaine Brock will start at cornerback, and Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea will start at safety. Early indications are that Chris Culliver should be fine to start at cornerback, but he could be pushed by Chris Cook. Jimmie Ward was drafted to be the nickel back this year, but as a rookie he'll have to beat out Perrish Cox. Darryl Morris is also getting some work back there, but assuming Ward's foot is fine come training camp, Ward seems likely to grab at least the dime role coming out of camp, and hopefully the nickel role. I know Danny is a fan of Dontae Johnson due to his versatility. This group is deep in terms of bodies, but the talent level is something that is still waiting to be figured out.