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49ers free agents tape study: How much does Darnell Dockett have left in the tank?

The 49ers added veteran Darnell Dockett to the mix at defensive line early in free agency. We go to the film and break down what you should expect from the former division rival.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the release of Ray McDonald late last season and Justin Smith’s pending retirement, the 49ers are staring at a new-look defensive line in 2015. While the 49ers have been able to plug-n-play at nose tackle in recent seasons, Smith and McDonald have been pillars of consistency at defensive end. Combined, they’ve missed just five games across the past four seasons, a feat made even more impressive when you consider they rarely came off the field for much of that stretch.1

Replacing the lion’s share of Smith’s and McDonald’s production will be a responsibility predominantly placed on a group of players from San Francisco’s recent draft classes. Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Tony Jerod-Eddie, and Ian Williams are all likely to see their snap counts rise in 2015, and all could see at least some time at defensive end depending on how the rotation shakes out.

Looking to supplement all of that youth with another veteran presence, Trent Baalke added former Arizona Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett to the mix with his first notable transaction of the offseason. Dockett is the archetypal Baalke free agent addition: a low-risk, medium-reward veteran with depressed market value, a proposition that has worked out more frequently on the defensive side of the ball. In Dockett’s case, his value reached its nadir due to an ACL tear that forced him to miss the entirety of the 2014 season. It was the first significant injury of Dockett’s career — in 10 previous seasons he suited up in all but two games.

The last time Dockett was on the field, he was enjoying a solid bounce-back campaign after struggling through the worst season of his career. Despite buying in to Ray Horton’s scheme early on in the defensive coordinator’s tenure — Horton ran Arizona’s defense in 2011 and 2012 — Dockett grew to hate Horton’s two-gap variation of the 3–4 defense and it showed in his production. So when Todd Bowles took over in 2013 and re-implemented a more aggressive, one-gap style up front, it was no surprise to see Dockett rebound.

Though listed on the depth chart as a 3–4 defensive end, Dockett’s primary alignment in Bowles’s defense was as a 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard), the position you’ll commonly find a defensive tackle in many 4–3 defenses.2 From that spot, Dockett was able to get back to what he does best: attack and penetrate the backfield.

Here you see Dockett (90) aligned in the strong-side B-gap on the outside shoulder of then-rookie-guard Chance Warmack (70). With Karlos Dansby (56) coming up late and drawing the attention of the center, Dockett is able to take a quick step inside and shoot upfield through the A-gap with little obstruction from the center. Dockett gets into the backfield so quickly, Warmack is forced to hold to prevent the ballcarrier from getting pummeled immediately after the handoff. When Dockett is at his most effective stopping the run, these are the types of plays you tend to see — quick penetration into the backfield to disrupt runs before they really have an opportunity to get going.

When the Cardinals went to their nickel package, Dockett would occasionally kick down farther inside, lining up over the center as either a 0- or 1-technique (head-up or shaded to either side of the center) as he does on the next play. Dockett’s quickness off the ball into the strong-side A-gap forces both Max Unger (60) and Paul McQuistan (67) to account for him, preventing either from getting to the second level, and allowing Daryl Washington (58) to run unscathed to the ball. The play would be a positive had Dockett stopped there. Instead, we see the trait that stuck out most to me when watching his film: his relentless pursuit of the football.

Once McQuistan finally peels off, Dockett keeps working down the line of scrimmage toward the ball. When Washington’s pursuit forces Lynch to cut back, Dockett is there to clean up the mess and make the tackle. It’s the type of play that showed up frequently in the games I watched. Whether it was a screen pass, a zone run to the opposite side of the field, or a quarterback looking to scramble outside of the pocket, whenever an offensive player was looking to get outside it was a good bet that Dockett was in hot pursuit and probably going to be involved in the play.

That relentlessness is probably the best way to describe Dockett’s pass rush abilities at this point in his career as well.

Dockett is back at the 3-technique on this play, shading the outside shoulder of right guard Michael Bowie (73). Arizona’s defensive line slants to Seattle’s right, putting Dockett’s pass rush lane outside of right tackle Breno Giacomini (68). The Cardinals’ slant puts Giacomini in a bad spot, as his first steps in attempting to sell the run action are in the opposite direction of Dockett’s movement. Giacomini is left off-balance, and Dockett’s quickness allows him to take advantage of the open lane to the quarterback. Dockett turns the corner and frees himself of the tackle with a rip move. His pursuit forces Russell Wilson out of the pocket and into a throwaway.

This is about as quick as you’re going to see Dockett pressure the quarterback nowadays. The days of Dockett blowing by an offensive lineman and getting immediate pressure are likely behind him as he enters his age–34 season. However, his strength and relentless effort will allow him to push the interior of the pocket backwards and limit the space quarterbacks have to step up. And if things breakdown and the quarterback is looking to escape the pocket, you can bank on Dockett hunting him down and forcing a bad throw. These things won’t lead to gaudy sack or pressure numbers, but they’re an important part of a defense’s overall pass rush.

Dockett should also provide value in the 49ers’ stunt game up front. In recent seasons, the 49ers have utilized stunts with their defensive lineman and outside linebackers as often as any team in football — something I don’t expect them to go away from with Jim Tomsula running the show. Dockett should be able to seamlessly transition into his new defense in this aspect, as he was frequently deployed in various stunts in Bowles’s defense.

Again aligning in the 3-technique, Dockett works the T-E stunt — a stunt the 49ers use often, most famously with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith — with outside linebacker Marcus Benard (59) on the right side of Tennessee’s offensive line. Dockett attacks the inside shoulder of right tackle David Stewart (76), with Benard looping around behind him to the inside. Once Warmack slides back inside to pick up Benard, Dockett shows off his power by tossing Stewart aside as part of an inside move to get to the quarterback. Dockett can’t quite close the deal, but his pressure flushes Ryan Fitzpatrick from the pocket leading to another throwaway.


I came away from my film study of Dockett with a much different impression than the one I held going in. Dockett’s disdain for two-gapping is well documented, and he’s clearly a better player when he can be in attack mode. But outside of that, I’m not sure his reputation as a great interior pass rusher and an awful run defender holds up as he enters the latter stage of his career.

From a pass rushing perspective, he’s no longer a game changer. He struggled to consistently win one-on-one match-ups in the games I studied.3 As previously mentioned, the majority of his pressures came late with Dockett outlasting his opponent as the quarterback searched for a place to go with the football against good coverage. Dockett can certainly provide some value in this area, but it’s more likely to be in some of the more subtle ways described above.

Dockett’s inability to defend the run has been exaggerated. Again, you don’t want to ask him to eat up blockers. That’s not his forte, and I would guess Dockett wouldn’t have signed in the first place if that’s what the 49ers were going to ask him to do. His ability to penetrate can be a double-edged sword, sometimes allowing him to disrupt plays before they get going and other times leaving him out of position and forcing his teammates to cover his ass. That said, he’s not the liability in run defense that some have made him out to be.

My initial thoughts after the signing were that Dockett would fit in as a pass rushing DT in San Francisco’s sub-packages. Now, I’m not sure his role needs to be that specialized. Dockett should absolutely be a rotational player — even if he’s able to perform at his pre-ACL tear level of play, he’s more valuable to the 49ers if he can give max effort on a limited number of snaps than as a starter. And if he winds up seeing more snaps than the 49ers’ younger options at the position, that will speak more to a lack of development among the youngsters than Dockett’s status as a starter.

  1. The snap percentage of each player has decreased since the early-Harbaugh years when Smith and McDonald were both playing over 90 percent of defensive snaps, but even when a rotation has been most frequently used they’ve still played over two-thirds of the snaps. Toss in all the snaps from three extended playoff runs and the general nature of playing the position that they do, and it’s a pretty remarkable feat they’ve missed so little time.

  2. The 49ers have been very multiple in their DL alignments in recent seasons as well, with their DEs moving around from the traditional 5-technique alignment (outside shoulder of the tackle) of 3–4 DEs quite a bit.

  3. I watched his final four games of the 2013 season against the Rams, Titans, Seahawks, and 49ers.