San Francisco 49ers: Why Defensive Line Is the Strongest for 2016
The San Francisco 49ers added to the defensive line in the 2016 NFL Draft, making it the strongest position on the roster, here we break down why.
In the San Francisco 49ers’ spell of success between 2011 and 2013, the defensive line was key to their fortunes, with defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald excelling at generating pressure and opening up holes for teammates to impact the play in both the run and the passing game.
Smith’s retirement and McDonald’s off-the-field issues, and subsequent release, have led the 49ers to give their D-line a significant remodel. San Francisco has spent considerable resources on the defensive side of the trenches in recent times, using first-round picks on Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner in the last two drafts.
Armstead showed flashes of promise last year and, with the addition of Buckner and Ian Williams’ highly impressive 2015 campaign, the D-line has both depth and quality and is once again the strength of the team.
In fairness, there is not much competition for that title. The quarterback position is a mess, there are no high-caliber receivers on the roster beyond Torrey Smith and the Niners have little at tight end to scare opposing defenses.
At running back, Carlos Hyde has yet to play a full season without suffering an injury and the options behind him — Shaun Draughn, DuJuan Harris, Mike Davis and Kelvin Taylor — are either average or unproven.
Aside from Joe Staley and Daniel Kilgore, the 49ers are relying on a number of young players to succeed in order for the offensive line to become the force it was in the Jim Harbaugh years.
On the defensive side of things, the 49ers have an All-Pro at linebacker in NaVorro Bowman and a quickly improving pass rusher in Aaron Lynch. However, the depth at both outside and inside linebacker is questionable at best.
Beyond Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward, it is debatable whether the 49ers know what they have yet at corner, with rookies Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson and Prince Charles Iworah joining players such as Kenneth Acker, Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser, who have not had enough playing time to determine what their roles will be going forward in the pros.
The one position that could also be seen as the strongest on the roster is safety. Indeed, the 49ers have two experienced starters in Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea and promising depth in the form of the versatile Ward and Jaquiski Tatt and hard-hitting special teams ace L.J. McCray. Cornerback Dontae Johnson also has spent time at the position in college.
However, Bethea will be 32 years old by the time the season starts and is coming off a 2015 season in which he suffered a torn pectoral. Conditioning will be key for Bethea but that does not figure to be much of an issue for Reid, who enjoyed a nice bounce-back year last term and has become one of the leaders on the defense behind Bowman.
Yet Reid does have a worrying history of concussions and, while he, Bethea and Tartt have impressed in the run game, their coverage skills leave a fair bit to be desired.
Ward, who enjoyed a strong 2015 as the Niners’ nickel back, is perhaps San Francisco’s best coverage safety.
The 49ers have more experience at safety but, with Bethea’s age, the slight concern over Reid’s head injuries and the somewhat one-dimensional nature of that duo and Tartt, the long-term upside on the defensive line would appear to be greater.
Although nose tackle Ian Williams’ Week 1 status is in question after his offseason ankle surgery and his most likely deputy Glenn Dorsey suffered a torn ACL last season, the defensive line has the most depth and potential of any of the position groups.
Armstead quietly put together a very impressive rookie season, racking up 38 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and reuniting with him with Buckner provides the 49ers with a potentially devastating duo of interior pass rushers who can excel in both the three-man base front and in the nickel defense.
Buckner was PFF’s highest-graded interior defender in the nation in his final season with the Oregon Ducks and ended the year with 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.
Both Buckner and Armstead should be able to generate push from the defensive end positions and with their sheer size — Buckner is 6’7″ and 300 pounds and Armstead is 6’7″ and 292 pounds — have the frame to command plenty of double teams and open up gaps for other defenders to slip through.
The former Oregon duo are more likely to be on the sidelines on running downs — despite Armstead making strides in defending the ground game late in 2015 — with the likes of Quinton Dial and Dorsey better candidates to contribute in that area.
Dial was very stout when defending the rush last term and put up a career-high 59 tackles, and Dorsey has considerable experience as an NFL D-lineman in his eight years in the league — proving a dependable and productive player up front as he filled in extremely effectively for an injured Williams during the 2013 campaign.
Dorsey’s ability to play defensive end and nose tackle should be very valuable to the 49ers, with Tony Jerod-Eddie, Mike Purcell, fifth-round rookie Ronald Blair and Tank Carradine — depending on whether he gets moved permanently to outside linebacker — also potential contributors in 2016.
The flashes Purcell displayed in the brief action he saw last season could see him pressed into service at nose if Williams and Dorsey are both unable to go.
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It will also be intriguing to see what San Francisco can get out of a player in Blair who comes out of Appalachian State as a raw defensive lineman, who is undersized for a 3-4 but with the power, snap-anticipation and foot quickness to make an impact as a nickel pass rusher.
Williams, with his ability to soak up and get off blocks to make plays in the run game and generate a surprising amount of pressure from the nose spot, was the key to the small steps the 49ers’ D-line made in 2015.
Much will hinge on his health this season but, even if he is not back for Week 1, the Niners can go into their season opener with the Los Angeles Rams knowing they are stacked with versatile D-linemen who should ensure this group makes further improvements in 2016.
Next: San Francisco 49ers: 10 Players Entering a Make-or-Break Season in 2016
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro Football Reference and Sports Reference unless otherwise indicated.