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How will the 49ers rotate on the defensive line?

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The 49ers have added a lot of defensive line depth, but Jeff Zgonina’s philosophy suggests plenty of playing time for all.

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The San Francisco 49ers have invested heavily in the defensive line in recent years, and defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina seems excited about the rotation possibilities. Jennifer Chan had his thoughts on rotations, and his expectation that DeForest Buckner will not have to play over 1,000 snaps like he did as a rookie.

Earlier this week, Grant Cohn wrote about defensive lineman Arik Armstead, describing him as the most underrated played on the 49ers. Armstead has not put up huge sack numbers, but in his first two seasons, when healthy, he has provided a strong interior pass rush skillset.

In discussing Armstead, Cohn raised the point that drafting DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas in back-to-back seasons was redundant, because they all play the same position. The 49ers are making adjustments with the base defense, but his thought is that in the nickel, Armstead will come off the field while Buckner and Thomas play the two defensive tackle roles.

Rotoworld picked this up, and then Pro Football Focus did as well. One of PFF’s writers had a quick article on this report in order to point to Armstead’s success as an interior pass rusher. Injuries have slowed him, but has led 3-4 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity each of the past two years.

The plan when the 49ers are in their base 4-3 appears to be for Armstead to play the LEO and Solomon Thomas to play the other end role, with Buckner and Earl Mitchell playing in the interior. When the 49ers switch to their nickel, Ahmad Brooks and Elvis Dumervil would be the front-runners at defensive end, with Eli Harold and Tank Carradine among those also competing for opportunities.

Zgonina is a fan of defensive rotation, but we don’t know yet what exactly that will entail. In his media session, he said, “I told those guys, you give me 4-5 hard plays, full tilt, I’m going to rotate you because I believe in fresh bodies all the time.”

That would seem to suggest we will see a lot of players in and out along the line. Buckner, Thomas, and Armstead are the big three rotation options, but so are Quinton Dial and Ronald Blair, among others. And that’s assuming all make the roster when final cuts are made. Trades could happen, and surprise cuts are certainly a possibility. But even if all five of these players are on the roster, there is something to be said for having extensive rotation opportunities.

Buckner talked about wanting to come out one time last season when he was getting tired. He tapped his helmet to indicate as such, but nobody was sent out to replace him. It was then that he realized he was in it for the long haul. It seems safe to say Zgonina will work to make sure that never happens again. The question is how exactly the rotation will work.