49ers: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis

Phil G@FuturePhilGCorrespondent IJuly 7, 2014

49ers: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis

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    At this time of the year, take everything with a grain of salt. Trust and believe nobody. This is the dead part of the offseason that both fans and players hate.

    Ok, maybe I'm exaggerating about the trusting-nobody mantra, but you get my point.

Now, what do bored football fans do during this two-week hiatus of sorts? Well, we could focus on other sports. How about soccer?

    Ah, too soon?

    All joking aside, why don't we delve into some NFL depth-chart discussion. Yes, this list will likely change at the conclusion of both training camp and preseason action, but it doesn't hurt to get a sneak peak at what's to come in the following weeks.

    Let's take a look at the defensive depth chart for the San Francisco 49ers!


    *indicates projected starter up to this point

    **indicates injured player




Defensive End/Defensive Tackle (DE/DT)

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    Projected Depth Chart: 

    1. Justin Smith*

    2. Ray McDonald*

    3. Tank Carradine

    4. Demarcus Dobbs

    5. Tony Jerod-Eddie


    If healthy, Smith and McDonald will most certainly start at end/tackle in the 49ers 3-4 scheme. With his age and minor injury history, the 34-year-old Smith is the most likely candidate to miss time due to injury. 

    I'm sure many 49ers fans are excited to see Carradine on the field this year. The 2013 second-round pick was essentially redshirted last year due to injury.

    While Smith is a candidate to retire donning the red and gold, the young Carradine could eventually replace McDonald. That remains to be seen, but coach Jim Harbaugh did express his excitement about the second year pro, according to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News

    You see the flashes and the strength and the ability. Kind of have to pull him back because we're not in live situations here in practice. But very excited for where he's at right now.

    Both Dobbs and Jerod-Eddie provide depth along the defensive line, though one of the two could be released to add more roster flexibility at other positions.  




Nose Tackle (NT)

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    Projected Depth Chart:

    1. Glenn Dorsey*

    2. Ian Williams 

    3. Quinton Dial


    After the season ending injury to Williams, Dorsey stepped up to plate and proved to be a godsend for the 49ers. The veteran lineman, who was largely considered a bust with the Kansas City Chiefs, rejuvenated his career with the 49ers in 2013. 

    With both Williams and Dorsey healthy heading into training camp, it should be quite the battle at the nose position. I give Dorsey the edge for right now, though it would not shock me if Williams won the job. Williams was playing excellent football prior to his season ending injury last year. 

    Dial is another player I love, but don't expect the second-year pro to be a factor in this competition. He's versatile enough to line up as a 0- or 5-technique, and h can also play on special teams. So his roster spot is likely safe.

Outside Linebacker (OLB)

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    Projected Depth Chart:

    1. Aldon Smith*

    2. Ahmad Brooks*

    3. Corey Lemonier

    4. Dan Skuta

    5. Aaron Lynch


    Like McDonald and Justin Smith, Brooks and Aldon Smith will be the starters at outside linebacker. Now, it should be interesting to see if Aldon misses any regular season games due to possible off-the-field punishment. There's at least some good news on that front, as Smith has been cleared of all charges in the LAX incident.

    On the other hand, Brooks is coming off a career year after being named All-Pro in 2013. If both guys can stay healthy, the 49ers have two of the most dynamic edge-rushers in the league. 

    The interesting story here is the battle at the backup spots. In the absence of Smith last season, it was the combination of Skuta and Lemonier that picked up the slack. Skuta got the starting nod, but it was Lemonier who flashed brilliance as a relentless force off the edge. 

    If Smith misses time again this season, I give Lemonier the edge to start this time around. Though, if Lemonier/Skuta are playing significant snaps, it means the 49ers are losing out on the dynamic ability of Smith, who offers the on-field production that few can replicate.

    Moving on to Lynch, I wonder if the former Notre Dame and South Florida product can make the roster. It's shaky right now, but I wouldn't be surprised if Lynch makes the roster primarily playing special teams. 

Inside Linebacker (ILB)

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    Projected Depth Chart:

    1. Patrick Willis*

    2. NaVorro Bowman**

    3. Michael Wilhoite

    4. Chris Borland

    5. Nick Moody

    6. Blake Costanzo

    7. Shayne Skov


    No need to discuss Patrick Willis!

    Now, it's the knee injury suffered by Bowman in last season's NFC Championship Game that will cause some shuffling at inside linebacker. The 49ers have some young talent at the position, but the person to replace Bowman will likely be Wilhoite.

    Wilhoite did a fantastic job in the absence of Patrick Willis last season. Granted, it was a small sample, but the veteran linebacker proved to be a great fit with this defense. In my eyes, it's Wilhoite's job to lose. 

    After drafting Borland in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft, many analysts believed the former Wisconsin product would immediately enter the starting lineup in lieu of Bowman. I really like Borland as a prospect, but it should be tough for him to supplant the more experienced Wilhoite.

    Even Borland seems to agree.

    "I think it’s his spot [Wilhoite] right now, but I’m going to fight for it,” Borland told the Wisconsin State Journal. 

    Regardless of what happens in this competition, Borland should still be a solid special teams contributor. The same can be said for Moody, who should also have a chance at claiming a starting spot alongside Willis. 

    In a somewhat surprising move, the 49ers brought back ace special teams contributor, Costanzo. A few years ago, Costanzo would have been a lock for a roster spot, but the aging linebacker might find himself on the outside looking in this season. 

    The 49ers just have too much depth at inside linebacker. Even the talented Skov, who was an undrafted free agent, will struggle to make this roster. Though, Skov would be a great practice squad candidate for the upcoming season. 

Cornerback (CB)

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    Projected Depth Chart:

    1. Tramaine Brock*

    2. Chris Culliver* 

    3. Chris Cook

    4. Dontae Johnson

    5. Kenneth Acker 

    6. Keith Reaser**


    Of the five mentioned above, only Brock will be a sure fire starter heading into training camp. Brock was fantastic last season and parlayed his superb production into a four-year extension. 

    Chris Culliver could have been in line for an extension, but his off-the-field troubles continue to hold back his career. When healthy, Culliver is a promising player with physical gifts few cornerbacks can match. 

    There are those who forget that Culliver was a huge part of the 49ers secondary prior to getting hurt. Again, if healthy, Culliver should be the starter opposite Brock.

    The most surprising name on this list is Cook. Many believed the former second-round pick would eventually be headed to the chopping block, but Cook has impressed during minicamps and OTAs.

    After playing with the Minnesota Vikings for the first four seasons of his career, Cook seems to be enjoying the 49ers scheme on defense.

    I like this defense a lot and feel it fits my style of play. I like to man up, and a lot of thing we do ends up being man coverage.

    Unless the 49ers have a veteran CB on their radar, Cook will likely stay around for depth purposes. The same can be said for Johnson, a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft.

    Johnson is still a very raw player, but I really like his versatility. He's a physical defensive back with the ability to thrive in press-man coverage. Still, in all honesty, Johnson is a year or two away from making an impact. 

    Acker will likely be a practice squad player, but he's another corner to watch for in a few years. Reaser, drafted in the fifth round, will probably redshirt his rookie season. 

Strong Safety (SS)

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    Projected Depth Chart:

    1. Antoine Bethea*

    2. Jimmie Ward

    3. Craig Dahl

    4. Raymond Ventrone


    The newly signed Bethea will be the starter at strong safety. He should be a minor upgrade over Donte Whitner. 

    Ward, who was drafted by the 49ers in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, should be the primary backup at both safety positions. (More on Ward's role later in the article.)

    While I'm not in love with Dahl, he should contribute on special teams and give the 49ers some depth on the back end. With Spillman and a healthy Ward, I don't see why the 49ers intend to keep Dahl. Still, I see the veteran safety sticking with the team somehow. 

    Ventrone should have a guaranteed spot on the roster this season. The veteran safety is the 49ers best special teams player. C.J. Spillman and Kassim Osgood should also be in this discussion, as well. 

Free Safety (FS)

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    Projected Depth Chart:

    1. Eric Reid*

    2. C.J. Spillman

    Reid was one of the more impressive rookies in the NFL last season. His superb play was confirmed with a Pro Bowl invite in 2013. 

    As long as he can stay healthy, Reid has a chance to be a special player in this league. He has all the physical and mental tools to be a leader in the 49ers secondary for years to come.

    Spillman could be expendable this year, though the veteran safety is still a fantastic special teams player. The 49ers could force Spillman to take a pay cut with all the extra depth on special teams this year. 



Bonus: Nickel/Slot

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    Projected Depth Chart:

    1. Darryl Morris*

    2. Jimmie Ward

    3. Perrish Cox


    Morris is a name to watch in the 49ers secondary. The 49ers are looking at Morris as a potential replacement for Carlos Rogers who left during free agency.

    San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio tells Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee that Morris has a chance to take the next step in his career. 

    He’s a smart guy. He’s fast. He’s tough. So, he’s got some good intangibles along those ways. He just has to learn to play the position and all the nuances that go at that, which is a tall order for him coming from a small school, just making the team, making the practice squad and then being called up is a major victory. And now to ask him to take this next step, we’ll see how he does with it. And he’s made slow but steady progress through the offseason

    Now, it remains to be seen if Morris can supplant the talented Ward. Morris has been given more opportunities in minicamps and OTAs, but that was simply due to Ward's injury. With Ward healthy, it should be a fierce battle.

    Cox is the dark horse in this competition. If Morris and Ward struggle, which is likely, the 49ers may feel more comfortable with Cox starting the season as the starter. Though, I will stick with my prediction that Ward ends up with the job before the conclusion of the season.