Position profile: Defensive line

A lot of people talk about how difficult it is for NFL teams to scout, evaluate, draft and develop quarterbacks. What’s even more difficult, it seems, is finding quality defensive linemen in the draft.

 

In the 2008 draft, there were five defensive linemen chosen in the first eight picks: Chris Long (Rams), Glenn Dorsey (Chiefs), Vernon Gholston (Jets), Sedrick Ellis (Saints) and Derrick Harvey (Jaguars). Some have been OK. Some have done nothing. Thus far, none has proven to be worthy of being a top-10 selection.

 

The 49ers tried their luck at that position at the bottom of the first round when they selected Kentwan Balmer. Thus far, he has given them no return on the investment.

 

Does that mean teams should just stop drafting defensive linemen? No. And that’s why I believe defensive line is still a spot the 49ers might look to land a quality player in the draft. After all, the 49ers would have been more than happy to secure LSU’s Tyson Jackson a year ago with the No. 10 overall pick. But, as it turned out, Jackson flew off the board when the Chiefs took him at No. 3.

 

That’s why it would not surprise me to see the 49ers take a defensive lineman in the first round if they find somebody who has ample helpings of size, strength, smarts, passion and production.

 

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THUMBNAILS

 

RE Justin Smith: On the first day of free agency in 2008, the 49ers went after him. Mike Nolan took him on a helicopter ride around the Bay Area, and the following day Smith signed on the dotted line. The 49ers awarded Smith a six-year, $45 million contract – a non-guaranteed $20 million of which comes in the final three years (2011-13). Smith has given the 49ers everything they expected. He plays all downs and his motor never stops. He was a second alternate NFC Pro Bowl selection who made his first appearance in the all-star game this season. If I were to rank the players on the team, Patrick Willis would be No. 1, and Justin Smith would be No. 2.

 


abrayofrank.jpgNT Aubrayo Franklin:
There is no question the level of his play rose dramatically when defensive coordinator Greg Manusky simplified the 49ers’ defense after the firing of Nolan in 2008. Franklin has done a good job, and his teammates consider him one of the best in the business at nose tackle. Still, the 49ers feel no great urgency to sign Franklin to a long-term contract. That’s because the club can use the franchise tag of $7 million to virtually assure his services in 2010. In fact, the 49ers have planned to use the franchise tag on Franklin for at least three months. The 49ers got a bargain when they signed Franklin to a three-year, $6 million contract in 2007. He’ll make more than that this season alone. But, at 6-foot-1, 317 pounds, Franklin is not a large nose tackle by NFL standards. The team wants him to show he can put together back-to-back seasons before they make a long-term commitment.

 

LE Isaac Sopoaga: When he was a scheduled free agent in 2008, the comparable contract that was used for his five-year, $20 million deal was the Cowboys’ agreement with Jay Ratliff. While Ratliff has gone on to become one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL, Sopoaga simply has not taken that next step. He started all 16 games at left defensive end, and made very little impact. Holding the point and doing the dirty work in the 3-4 scheme is one thing, but too often Sopoaga gets upright and is driven back off the line of scrimmage. He is scheduled to earn about $2.25 million this season with $4 million salaries in 2011 and ’12. If the 49ers do go after a defensive lineman with a high draft selection, that player would be brought in to challenge Sopoaga for a starting job.

 

DE Ray McDonald: His forte is rushing the passer with his initial quickness off the ball. He is now a year removed from ACL reconstruction in his right knee. McDonald saw his action exclusively as an inside pass rusher in nickel situations, lining up alongside Justin Smith. According to the coaches’ film review, McDonald was third on the 49ers with 44 quarterback pressures. His 21 hits on the QB ranked fourth. He enters the final year of his contract.

 


Balmer.jpgDE/NT Kentwan Balmer:
His development has been slow, and he will not be able to accomplish a lot this offseason. He’s in the midst of a six-month rehabilitation from shoulder surgery. The club hopes he’ll be cleared to resume on-field work in June. Balmer was the 29th overall pick in the 2008 draft. Like so many young defensive linemen, he has not been productive. He was getting onto the field about one-third of the time on base downs, and doing just OK, prior to sustaining a torn labrum in his right shoulder. It looks as if he takes his job seriously, and he works hard. But, at this point, I don’t know if he has what it takes to contribute on a good defense.

 

DE Demetric Evans: He’s a versatile veteran who saw limited action behind iron man Justin Smith at right defensive end. Evans played in every game and recorded 18 tackles with 1.5 sacks on the season. His scheduled salary for 2010 is $1.4 million, so he’ll have to hold off some of the young guys on the team to win his way on the roster.

 


RickyJeanFran.jpgDE Ricky Jean-Francois:
His rookie season turned into a redshirt year. He was inactive for nine games, did not play in four others and saw limited action in the final three games. The 49ers want to see a big bump in his performance this season, as he enters the offseason in a battle for a roster spot.

 

NT/OT Khalif Mitchell: At 6-5, 318 pounds, Mitchell has the body that could also suit him well on the offensive line. He played both ways on the scout team after he was signed to the practice squad in mid-October. He played nose tackle in training camp a year ago as an undrafted free agent.

 

DE Derek Walker: By the time, the 49ers claimed him off waivers from the Seahawks, they were no longer practicing in pads. And if a defensive lineman isn’t in pads, there’s really not much that can be evaluated. At 6-4, 271 pounds, he should get a chance in training camp to see if he is worthy of a spot on the practice squad or active roster in 2010.

 

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