The San Francisco 49ers defensive line was a primary reason behind the team's success and failure in 2013.
One could argue both ways. In that sense, the defensive line had its moments of strength and dominance. It also suffered from attrition and injury which had a direct impact on San Francisco's Super Bowl prospects.
Yet, after a close examination with both positive and negative elements from last year, it is possible to make an accurate prediction and analysis of how the 49ers defensive line will fare in 2013. The 49ers will unquestionably benefit from the services of returning veterans like defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. Departures of defensive tackles including Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois may also prove to be a blessing in disguise.
Additionally, San Francisco made a number of changes during the offseason. Most of these figure to have an immediate impact in the upcoming year. Other changes may be of the wait-and-see variety.
In any case, the 49ers defensive line has a bright future ahead of them and there are plenty of reasons to believe that they will be one of the team's dominant forces in the very near future.
2012 - A Summary
It is a reasonable argument to say that San Francisco's defensive line in 2012 revolved and rotated around Justin Smith.
When Smith was on the field, the 49ers defense was one of the best in the league. In the first 14 weeks of the season, San Francisco allowed an average of a little more than 255 yards per game and forced 18 turnovers. The defensive line was a invaluable part of that success.
Then in Week 15 against the New England Patriots, Smith suffered a triceps injury forcing him out of the game. While he would eventually return in the playoffs, it was clear that Smith was not at 100 percent. The injury plagued him and the rest of the defense.
Including Week 15 and on through the Super Bowl, San Francisco's defense gave up an average of 387 yards per game. In all three of the 49ers postseason games, San Francisco allowed over 350 yards of total offense, including 477 yards allowed against the Atlanta Falcons during the NFC championship. In contrast, San Francisco only had one regular season game where their defense allowed more than 350 yards, the Week 15 matchup against New England.
Sure, one could argue that there are better offenses in the playoffs which resulted in the higher yardage allowed. However, anyone watching the games could have noticed the difference.
This writer has always believed that good defense starts with the defensive line and pass rush. For the majority of the season, San Francisco's pass rush was incredulous. There was Smith, often drawing two or even three blockers along the line. The attention opened up other lanes for attack, resulting in quarterback pressure and a plethora of sacks, most of which were at the hands of second-year veteran Aldon Smith.
The younger Smith would total 19.5 sacks before the matchup versus New England. After Justin Smith's injury, Aldon would not record another during the remainder of the season and playoffs.
As a result, opponents' quarterbacks had more time in the pocket, resulting in better offensive numbers via the passing game. During the playoffs, one of the exploitable weaknesses was San Francisco's secondary. Despite their individual struggles, the lack of pressure up front was an unquestionable factor.
The formula for success, or failure, centered around Justin Smith. Aside from him, San Francisco had little else to rely upon up front. There was fellow end Ray McDonald who put together a nice season, including 2.5 sacks and 28 tackles. Yet McDonald never drew the attention as Smith had. In addition, the 49ers' nose tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois put in lackluster seasons and never were able to step up their game after Smith suffered his Week 15 injury.
Furthermore, there was an apparent lack of depth along the defensive line. Nobody stepped in to fill Smith's void. Combine that with fatigue of playing the majority of snaps and the defensive line was doomed in the playoffs.
The rest of the story is well known: San Francisco's defensive line struggled in the playoffs and Super Bowl and the rest of the defense also struggled to make up the difference.
One of the booming questions that the 49ers had to answer heading into the postseason was what to do about their defense. There was the pending departure of Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson, along with the possible departures of both Sopoaga and Jean-Francois via free agency. In addition, there remained a need to ensure that the defensive line did not suffer the same lapse as it had the season prior.
As it turned out, free agency and the draft created and then solved some of San Francisco's questions heading forward.
First, there was the question of what to do with Sopoaga and Jean-Francois. Both were free agents and both went on to sign with new teams, Sopoaga with the Philadelphia Eagles and Jean-Francois with the Indianapolis Colts. Sopoaga, who had only played roughly 31 percent of defensive snaps in 2012, was deemed expendable, especially considering the 49ers' use of more nickel and dime packages. Jean-Francois' necessity to the team had also waned.
In response, San Francisco signed nose tackle Glenn Dorsey to a two-year, $6 million contract hoping to shore up any need at the position. Dorsey was a first-round pick, fifth overall, of the Kansas City Chiefs back in 2008. While he was well-known for stopping the run, Dorsey's biggest liability was in the pass rush, an area the 49ers did not want to see struggles with in 2013.
Whether or not Dorsey emerges as a top candidate for the starting nose tackle job remains to be seen. While his status as a former first-round draft pick certainly helps his stock, his subpar years in Kansas City cloud his reputation.
Heading into the 2013 NFL draft, San Francisco was well stocked with 13 picks and figured to use some of them in an attempt to bolster the defensive line. An immediate concern was with Smith, who was due to become a free agent after 2013. Would the 49ers try to find his eventual replacement?
Additionally, there were concerns about the team's depth along the line. The lack of it was exploited towards the end of 2012 and the 49ers needed to bolster each position with quality backups. This need was pointed out by Eric Branch of SF Gate back in February when he wrote:
The lack of depth at the position explains the heavy workload of [Justin] Smith and defensive tackle Ray McDonald in recent years. Including playoff games, McDonald ranks third in snaps played by defensive linemen since 2011 and Smith is fourth, according to ESPN. The draft is loaded with defensive linemen, and San Francisco has four of the first 93 picks over the first three rounds. (sfgate.com)
The draft provided San Francisco with the opportunity. The 49ers used two of their first four picks to draft former Florida State defensive end Cornellius Carradine and former Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier in the second and third rounds, respectively. They also selected former Alabama defensive end Quinton Dial in the fifth round to add some needed depth.
San Francisco also signed former Wyoming defensive tackle Mike Purcell and British Olympian Lawrence Okoye as undrafted free agents.
Heading towards Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and training camp, it was apparent that the 49ers were taking their situation at defensive line seriously.
The 49ers addressed one of their primary concerns with their defensive line. They added depth during the draft and made a free agent acquisition that supplanted the loss of Sopoaga and Jean-Francois. Still, there remained even more questions surrounding exactly what would happen on the defensive front line.
For starters, San Francisco was taking a hard look at Smith. There was, and still is, no question regarding his importance to the defense, yet Smith was entering a contract year going into 2013. At 33-years-old, would Smith be worthy of a contract extension?
The 49ers thought so and rewarded Smith with a three-year, $16.7 million contract all but guaranteeing he would end his career in San Francisco.
One question was answered and a few more remained.
Both Dorsey and Williams figure to be the top-two contenders for the starting defensive tackle position. Depending on how each perform during training camp, either one has a legitimate shot at earning the job. Williams has been a part of the team for two seasons and is familiar with the defensive scheme. Dorsey is a former first-round draft pick who never lived up to expectations in Kansas City.
Purcell may be best suited as a backup, at least in his rookie year.
Barring injury, the 49ers starters at defensive end will be Smith and McDonald. That much is certain. Yet how will newcomer rookies Carradine, Lemonier and Dial figure into the equation? Going into OTAs, training camp and the preseason, San Francisco will have to carefully examine its situation with the team's rookies.
Carradine is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last November. As reported by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, the 49ers are in no rush to get him onto the field before he is ready. Currently he is on the non-football injury list and if he is still there by September, Carradine will have to sit out the first half of the season. What is known is that the 49ers are expecting him to become the heir apparent to Smith at some point within the next few years. Exactly when that happens is anyone's guess.
Similar to Carradine, Dial is also on the non-football injury list and may not play a significant role in his rookie season, at least not in the first half. What benefits Dial's chances, however, is the fact that he can play all three positions along the defensive line.
Lemonier is also a unique commodity. He played defensive end in college although the 49ers plan on using him as a reserve linebacker. With this flexibility, it is possible that he has a chance of some impact in 2013, and the 49ers are hoping that happens.
Trevor Woods of Niners Nation describes Lemonier's prospects for making the 2013 squad and having an immediate impact. He writes:
He has great size at 6'3" 255 lbs, and good length of the arms at 34.5". He's played on both sides and even stood up some in college. Some have called him a bit stiff in the hips, but the 49ers don't ask too much in coverage of their edge players. I think Lemonier makes the squad, which may sound like an obvious statement but the 49ers are accumulating a lot of players this time of year and there are only so many spots. For Lemonier to get on the field on some third downs and grab a few sacks in 2013 would be all you can ask from a mid-round pick in his rookie year. I think he can do that. (ninersnation.com)
Along with Lemonier, there are also role players Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Will Tukuafu, who will be competing for roster spots in 2013.
Then there is the question surrounding Okoye. The British Olympian has never played organized football in his life and was quoted as recognizing the difficulty in becoming an NFL player and that he would have to "start from scratch and work his way up."
NFL writer Gregg Rosenthal predicts what will happen to Okoye in the upcoming season by writing:
It's safe to say Okoye has a long way to go. Ideally, he will show enough potential over the summer to earn a spot on the team's practice squad. He has a better chance on the 49ers than elsewhere because of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. (nfl.com)
If Rosenthal is right, Okoye will be a non-factor in 2013.
Predictions for 2013
Starting at defensive tackle, the primary competition is between Dorsey and Williams. The situation, as it plays out during training camp and the preseason, will directly dictate which player takes over the starting role. Barrows compares the two by writing:
Dorsey won't be asked to pressure the quarterback. Instead, he'll have to occupy blockers, clog the middle on the run game and keep inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman clean. Williams only had a few snaps in the last two years, but he evidently made the most of them. The 49ers gave the former undrafted lineman a contract extension this offseason that came with a $1 million bonus. Williams is a smart, high-effort player. (sacbee.com)
Whoever wins the job will still be subject to the fact that San Francisco does not typically utilize defensive tackles. Instead, the 49ers typically use nickel and dime packages against the majority of pass-first offenses they face, thus negating the need for a top-tier defensive tackle to a certain extent.
Despite this, whoever starts at nose tackle will still have a tremendous responsibility as San Francisco's defense hopes to be just as effective at stopping the run as well as they did last year. Taylor Price of 49ers.com further describes this by writing:
San Francisco’s starting nose tackle will carry a great deal of responsibility when it comes to maintaining the defensive unit’s run-stuffing success. The 49ers ranked second in the NFL last season, allowing 3.59 yards per carry on first downs. Furthermore, the defense ranked first in the NFL, allowing 3.53 yards per carry on second downs. Forcing teams to be in third-and-long situations has been a calling card of the defense under respected coordinator Vic Fangio. (49ers.com)
Regardless, Dorsey appears to be the favorite to win the job, which is something CSN Bay Area 49ers insider Matt Maiocco agrees upon by writing that Dorsey is the presumptive starter at nose tackle.
As far as the defensive ends are concerned, both Smith and McDonald will remain the starters as previously mentioned. The primary difference, however, is that the 49ers stocked up on depth and potential long-term replacements.
The additions of Carradine, Lemonier and Dial will supplement San Francisco's depth problems. In the case of Carradine and Dial, both players may not see the field for the first half of the season if they remain on the non-football injury list into September. Yet the one positive about having all three players on the roster heading towards 2013 is the fact that the defensive line will be getting reinforcements as the season progresses.
Barrows elaborates on this further by writing:
In the past two seasons, the 49ers' defensive starters have played well more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps, a rate that adds up when the team plays deep into January. This year, the 49ers brought in reinforcements through the draft. The question this summer is when will rookie defensive linemen Carradine and Dial be able to take the field, and will they be effective substitutes for Smith and McDonald this season? (sacbee.com)
Assuming that both Carradine and Dial are ready to go midway through the season, the 49ers would at least have reasonable options for backups to both Smith and McDonald. If the two rookies can elevate their game-play, both veterans would benefit from the increased relief. This, in turn, would keep Smith and McDonald fresh deep into the playoffs allowing for the same sort of production that San Francisco's defense enjoyed the first half of last season.
In the long-term, players like Carradine and Dial may develop into the high-caliber replacements that the 49ers were looking for when each was drafted.
Dobbs, Jerod-Eddie and Tukuafu will also be competing for backup jobs on the starting roster, yet the competition remains fierce and it is likely that at least two of them will find their place on the practice squad along with rookies Okoye and Purcell.
Nonetheless, San Francisco will certainly benefit from the recent additions, both through free agency and the draft. In addition, the increased competition should further bolster each player's motivation to earn a significant role. While the regular season will be the true proving ground of how the defensive line holds up, it is a safe assumption that the 49ers are in much better shape up front this year than they were in 2012.
Maybe that will be enough to get San Francisco back into the Super Bowl and come away with a victory in 2013.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.