Wouldn't you know it, saving our look at the San Francisco 49ers' defensive line a season ago and going forward until last was actually a good idea. Thus far, we've taken a look at every other position on the roster (save for returner, which I forgot in the special teams article, which is probably telling for how little returners matter in today's NFL) and if you want to check out the individual posts, they're linked at the bottom.
Waiting on this post has turned out to be a good idea specifically for the "looking ahead" section, which will now undoubtedly be dominated by the recent signing of Darnell Dockett. He changes this big time, as far as immediate needs go and makes it pretty clear that the 49ers need to address wide receiver over defensive line in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's focus on what went down last season, shall we? We'll start with, you know, a pretty important guy.
Justin Smith - 16 games, 43 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
We still don't know for sure if Smith is going to return in 2015, and that's a big deal. Smith has been an integral cog in San Francisco's defense since they signed him in 2008. He makes life easier for the pass-rushers, and he certainly helps out Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. While doing all of this, he also gets to the quarterback himself and demands double coverage consistently.
One of Smith's biggest assets, aside from the fact that he's a veteran presence and a top locker room guy, is the fact that he's a high motor guy. He gives it 100 percent on every single play and rarely needs to come off the field. But it's worth noting that Smith did come off the field more than before last season, and he did seem to slow down later in the season. But hey -- he's not Superman ... just as close as we can get while still technically being human.
Tank Carradine - 9 games, 17 tackles, 3.0 sacks
I'm pretty disappointed with Carradine's workload last season. He played more than any 49ers defensive lineman in the preseason, but he spent multiple games on the inactive list despite being relatively healthy. Ask any 49ers fan and they'll tell you that Carradine was a future starter with a lot more upside than Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie, yet those two were above Carradine on the depth chart for much of the season.
Late in the season when the 49ers had little to play for, Carradine still mostly sat on the bench, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said that he wasn't ready. Carradine had a few sacks and definitely seemed better at rushing the passer than stopping the run or pursuing the football in general, but I have no idea where he stands as far as future potential is concerned.
Dorsey was originally placed on injured reserve with a return designation but he never really made said return. He finished the season on injured reserve and the 49ers had to result in something of a committee at the nose tackle position. I don't know how much Dorsey has left in the tank but if he can play at the level he was at in 2013, he definitely has a spot on this team in 2015.
Ian Williams - 9 games, 22 tackles, 1.0 sack
Williams is a sad story at this point. He keeps playing incredible football, surpassing all expectations, and then he gets injured. If we're talking about what happened on the field, I thought Williams looked better than the rest at nose tackle and I thought he was actually one of the better players in the NFL at the position. If he was healthy I'd say the 49ers have absolutely no concerns at the position. But who knows how he'll hold up going forward?
Quinton Dial - 14 games, 30 tackles, 2.0 sacks
Dial actually came out and made some highlight-reel plays this past season, and that was nice. Most of those plays came late in the year, but what really surprised me was how good he looked rushing the passer. He's not exactly your prototypical pass-rusher or anything, but he moved bodies out of the way and got to the quarterback a few times which was nice. He earned more playing time when Ray McDonald was released, though I thought he did his best work from the nose tackle spot. I wouldn't feel too uncomfortable with him starting.
Tony Jerod-Eddie - 16 games, 20 tackles
Remember above when I said that Fangio noted Carradine wasn't ready? In that same press conference, Fangio suggested that Jerod-Eddie was getting the nod not because he is better at rushing the passer, but because he takes better angles and is better prepared to reacting to the game at the NFL level. He said that Jerod-Eddie is just further along at this point, despite the fact that Jerod-Eddie doesn't necessarily make any eye-opening plays. That's just not what the 49ers are looking for out of him, at this point. He's a versatile player that can do most things at an average level.
This includes guys like Ray McDonald, Lawrence Okoye, Mike Purcell and Kaleb Ramsey. To start: McDonald is gone, which was a big deal last season but the 49ers were probably nearing the point of moving on from him anyway.
Ramsey was a practice squad guy and a camp body, but I'm not sure his ceiling is really there. Then there's Purcell, who got some playing time near the end of the season but is far down the depth chart. Okoye is a nice story and all, but aside from raw athleticism I'm not sure the 49ers really have the time or patience to turn him into an effective NFL defensive lineman. But that's just a general feeling and isn't based on watching him in practice or anything.
As noted above, a lot of what happens with this position depends on Smith returning. Obviously, the 49ers went out and signed Dockett and that is huge. Dockett, despite slowing down considerably, was still one of the most effective defensive linemen in the league at getting in the backfield and creating havoc. He didn't come away with the raw sack numbers, but he often hit the quarterback and was solid against the run.
If Dockett and Smith are playing next season, then the 49ers have to decide how often they want to work Carradine in, and may even have a battle between Williams and Dorsey for a starting spot. Even without Smith, the signing of Dockett means the 49ers don't need to spend a first-round pick on a defensive lineman and that they don't need to pursue another guy in free agency. So really, I'm not going to explore those things too much. The immediate future at the position depends on Smith's decision to return or not, Carradine's potential and the health of both Williams and Dorsey.