Not many openings on 49ers’ defensive line

Kentwan Balmer, the 49ers’ first-round pick last season at No. 29 overall, was not expected to put up big numbers as a rookie. Heck, he won’t be expected to put up big numbers at any point in his career.

That is the nature of the position he plays. Balmer is a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. The disappointment wasn’t that Balmer did not accumulate a lot of statistics. According to the team’s count, he had six solo tackles, 14 assists, no sacks and one pass defensed (that coming at the goal line to prevent a possible touchdown against the Bills).


No, the problem with Balmer’s first season with the 49ers is that he never became more than a bit player. However, you also have to consider whom the 49ers had playing ahead of him.


The 49ers forked out big money last offseason to retain Isaac Sopoaga (5 yrs/$20 million) and sign Justin Smith (6 yrs/$45 million). I think it would’ve been a bigger disappointment if Balmer (5 yrs/$7.5 million) had beaten out either of those players. (Listed at a mere 315 pounds, Balmer I don’t believe is best-suited for nose tackle.)


I have no idea whether Balmer is going to develop into a good player. But I do know one thing: Based on watching him throughout his first NFL season, his work ethic and commitment is not a concern. He seems to respond well to coaching. He works hard and practices with enthusiasm. Can he play? We shall see. Is he lazy? From what I witnessed, absolutely not.


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So what can you expect from a defensive end in the 49ers’ scheme? Nine NFL teams played a 3-4 scheme last season. Of those 18 starters, 11 of them recorded two or fewer sacks through the course of the season, including Sopoaga’s one sack. Only four of those 18 starters had five sacks or more. Justin Smith had seven; while NE’s Richard Seymour (8), the Jets’ Shaun Ellis (8) and Pittsburgh‘s Aaron Smith (5.5) were the others. (The 49ers played a hybrid defense through the first half of the season before switching to a 3-4.)


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I’m not sure the 49ers need a whole lot of help on the defensive line in the upcoming draft. I would think they already have six pretty good bets to make the team: Sopoaga, Smith, Balmer, Demetric Evans, Aubrayo Franklin and Ray McDonald. They’ll probably keep six defensive linemen on the 53-man roster. But a high draft pick would serve the useful purpose of bumping somebody off the team, thus improving the roster. If Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji is unchosen after nine picks, he would make sense – depending on who else might be available, of course.


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We once again check in with draft expert Rob Rang of for his evaluation of the draft-eligible players along the defense line:


Q: This is a pretty thin year for defensive linemen, isn’t it?

Rang: “It’s not bad, especially for 3-4 teams. There are some guys that makes some sense – a couple of the nose-guard types. B.J. Raji and Ron Brace, his teammate at B.C., they make some sense as nose guards. There are a couple of defensive ends, like Tyson Jackson at LSU.


“The one who is moving way up, who could make some sense for San Francisco in the second round, is Jarron Gilbert from San Jose. He’s a guy a lot of teams like for the late portion of the first round, like Pittsburgh, or early in the second round. He played a lot of defensive end and a lot of tackle at San Jose, which is running a 4-3. He’s 6-5, 285, and he’s perfect for a 3-4 defensive end. He’s freakishly athletic, for someone that size to be jumping out of pools. That’s the kind of stuff Scot McCloughan could get a kick out of because he can swing for the fences and get a home-run kind of guy. He’s an incredible athlete.”


Q: What are your thoughts on Tyson Jackson and Tennessee‘s Robert Ayers?

Rang: “I’m still struggling with Ayers. Ayers is a guy I’m not nearly as high on. (The NFL Network’s) Mike Mayock had him as the fifth-rated player overall, which stunned me. I think he’s best as a 4-3 defensive end. And I don’t think he’s athletic enough to be a 3-4 linebacker. Throughout his career, he was always a bust. He came in as a highly touted player, and he did nothing his first three years. He was a pain off the field. Then, his senior year, the light comes on. Those kinds of guys scare me.


“I can’t see the 49ers taking him, unless they move him to linebacker. Otherwise, they did the exact same thing with Kentwan Balmer last year. They took a similar player.”


Q: Is Jackson more of a 3-4 defensive end?

Rang: “That’s where I think he’s at his best. He’s played tackle and end, and LSU gets cute enough that they play some 3-4, and he’s done that. Everybody I talked to, he’s the preeminent 5-technique or defensive end for that system, for the 3-4. He’ll be available at 10. I think he’s a little of a reach there, but I know Denver would consider him at 12. In my last mock, I had San Diego taking him at 16.


“I don’t think you want to spend a top-10 pick on a  position that does not make a lot of plays. That’s why I thought the Balmer pick last year was potentially a good one because you’re getting good value at that spot. It’s the nature of the position, a 3-4 defensive end doesn’t make a lot of plays. Their job is to hold up the point.”


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