San Francisco 49ers 2016 Position Breakdown: Looking at the Defensive Line
By Peter Panacy
The San Francisco 49ers defensive line could be one of the team’s preeminent strengths after adding former Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner in the 2016 NFL Draft. Niner Noise takes a look at this unit in this position-by-position offseason breakdown.
One apparent sign of San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke’s vision for the 2016 NFL Draft was to reinforce the trenches, and Baalke made a move here by drafting former Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner with the team’s first pick.
Buckner will be reunited with former Oregon teammate, and fellow defensive end, Arik Armstead this season — promising bookends to what may become San Francisco’s best position of strength in 2016.
In this installment of Niner Noise’s offseason position-by-position breakdown, we look at how the 49ers defensive line may be a position of strength during the upcoming year.
We’ve already touted on San Francisco’s question marks at linebacker, but a strong D-line may negate many of the worries associated with that position.
A good D-line should make the 49ers linebackers’ jobs easier this season. And any football fan can tell you how games are won or lost in the trenches.
Fortunately, the Niners have some amicable depth and talent in addition to Buckner and Armstead. They’ll need that depth, considering head coach Chip Kelly’s uptempo offense may expose San Francisco’s defense a little more than usual.
So let’s get into what fans should watch this offseason as the 49ers D-line takes shape.
The 49ers had some good pieces in place to start the 2015 season. Defensive tackles Glenn Dorsey, Quinton Dial and Ian Williams started for the team’s 3-4 defensive front.
Armstead, whom the Niners drafted in Round 1 last year, figured to be a rotational piece as he developed his raw skill set.
But Dorsey was lost to a knee injury after 10 games, which opened up the door for Armstead to be a regular player. In this role, the former Duck prospect didn’t disappoint. He finished the season with a plus-15.1 overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) — second only behind Williams, who boasted a plus-24.4 mark.
Williams’ efforts shouldn’t be overlooked either. 2015 marked the first fully healthy season Williams had at the pro level. The primarily run-stuffing defensive lineman was re-signed to a long-term contract during the offseason, but a failed physical forced the 49ers front office to rework the contract to a one-year deal.
Dial, who posted a plus-1.1 overall PFF grade last year, was signed to a long-term extension.
Overall, the 49ers D-line had its standout talent. But Football Outsiders‘ breakdown of this Niners unit reveals some issues. San Francisco’s D-line posted an adjusted-line yard total of 4.15, which was 27th in the league last year. In the pass rush, this same unit amassed a 5.4 percent adjusted sack rate — 29th in the NFL.
So there’s some work to be done here. This unit may not be what it was back in the days of retired defensive end Justin Smith. But the pieces are in place.
2016 49ers Defensive Linemen
Depth was a primary concern for the 49ers D-line entering the NFL Draft. Selecting Buckner helped solve some of these worries and may have provided the Niners with a bona fide Week 1 starter.
So let’s take a look at the rest of the depth chart, courtesy of the team’s website:
- Arik Armstead
- Ronald Blair
- DeForest Buckner
- Tank Carradine
- Demetrius Cherry
- Quinton Dial
- Glenn Dorsey
- Tony Jerod-Eddie
- Darren Lake
- Mike Purcell
- Kaleb Ramsey
- Marcus Rush
- Garrison Smith
- Ian Williams
Fourth-year pro Tank Carradine is still listed as a defensive lineman, although he’ll likely be making a switch to more of an edge/outside linebacker role this season.
While Buckner will receive the majority of offseason hype, don’t sleep on the fifth-round selection of Appalachian State’s Ronald Blair — a situational pass-rusher who may emerge sooner rather than later.
What to Watch for 2016
Obviously, fans are going to want to see how Buckner and Armstead will pair to make the 49ers D-line one of the team’s best strengths this season.
But there’s a good chance Buckner doesn’t even wind up starting his rookie year.
Dorsey will probably not be ready for Week 1 as he works on his recovery, but Williams could be back from his ankle issues. Whether or not this happens will have an immediate impact on Buckner’s immediate role.
Still, considering Kelly’s offensive style, one shouldn’t expect Buckner to see a small amount of snaps in 2016. He’ll get his chances as the 49ers are expected to employ a rotation up front.
Fellow D-linemen Mike Purcell, Kaleb Ramsey and Marcus Rush will also be vying for playing time. Purcell, who appeared in eight games last season — starting three of them — will likely be the primary backup at the nose position.
But the biggest storyline to watch, aside from Buckner, will be whether or not the 49ers D-line can regain the same sort of prowess it had not long ago.
Physicality at the point of attack will go a long way in ensuring San Francisco’s defense will be effective against both the running and passing games.
More from Niner Noise
- 49ers 2023 NFL Draft tracker: Pick-by-pick news and analysis
- Predicting 49ers NFL Draft picks by looking at final mocks
- DraftKings NFL Draft Promo – Win $150 Guaranteed on Any $5 Bet
- 2023 NFL Draft: EDGE Byron Young could be impact player for 49ers
- 5 low-key NFL Draft options for 49ers who are flying under the radar
San Francisco has some nice pieces in place, and the team made notable upgrades during the offseason.
Will these moves pan out during the regular season?
This remains to be seen. But the good news is the 49ers are looking to get stronger where it matters most.
Be sure to keep posted for Niner Noise’s ongoing breakdowns of each position this offseason.
Next: Looking at 49ers Cornerbacks in 2016
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.