49ers positional analysis: Defensive line

Strong and stable along the defensive line for several years, the 49ers still have some key cogs in place on this vital unit, but it could take a big hit when the lockout ends depending on what transpires in free agency. The names and numbers will change before the team starts playing football again, but here's a D-line status report with the scheduled start of training camp now just 23 days away.

The current breakdown at the position:

Starters at beginning of 2010 season: Isaac Sopoaga (LE), Aubrayo Franklin (NT), Justin Smith (RE)

Starters at finish of 2010 season: Isaac Sopoaga (LE), Aubrayo Franklin (NT), Justin Smith (RE)

2010 positional grade: B-plus

Defensive linemen currently on roster: Isaac Sopoaga, Justin Smith, Ricky Jean Francois, Will Tukuafu

Pending free agents: Aubrayo Franklin, Ray McDonald, Demetric Evans

Need to upgrade position before season: Moderate

In the NFL, you usually don't try to mess with a good thing. So the 49ers would likely be perfectly pleased to enter the 2011 season with the same front wall that has started along their defensive line in each of the past three seasons.

From left to right, Isaac Sopoaga, Aubrayo Franklin and Justin Smith have combined for 142 of a possible 144 starts while anchoring the point of attack in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme. It's fair to suggest they have consistently performed their job collectively as well or better than any other unit on the team during that span.

But now comes the real possibility that productive trio is about to be broken up.

After playing last season on a one-year tender of $7.003 million after being designated as San Francisco's franchise player, Franklin is prepared to find even bigger riches on the open market this year. The 49ers declined to again tag Franklin with the franchise label after he had another solid season in 2011, and that means they are sure to face a bidding war after a new CBA is reached if they intend to compete for his services and return to the team.

Franklin again did a commendable job clogging the middle for San Francisco's elite run-stopping defense, which ranked sixth in the NFL last season in rushing yards allowed and second in the league in rushing average allowed.

Franklin is expected to be a major attraction on the open market. He is listed by Scout.com as the 17th-best free agent available at any position, and he's No. 2 among defensive tackles behind Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, who already has been slapped with the franchise tag by the Ravens.

That could make Franklin, entering his ninth NFL season at age 30, the most sought-after defensive tackle once the bell rings to begin the mad scramble that will be free agency this year.

A recent report says Franklin will be a "Priority A" in free agency for the Washington Redskins, who have more cap room than most NFL teams this year and aren't afraid to overpay for big-ticket free agents. The report says Franklin is in line for a projected four-year, $32 million deal.

The 49ers would have to think twice about coming up with that kind of offer. They already have $65 million – almost $25 million of it guaranteed – invested in Franklin's capable bookends, Smith and Sopoaga, who both signed lucrative deals with the team in 2008.

Sopoaga is signed through 2012 and Smith through 2013, so both will remain unit fixtures, with the real possibility Sopoaga could shift this year from left end to nose tackle should the 49ers lose Franklin.

Sopoaga has become a better player since taking over as a full-time starter at end in 2008, and he may be even better suited to play nose tackle, where he saw plenty of action earlier in his career. Sopoaga had career highs of 75 tackles, 1.5 sacks and six tackles for a loss last season.

Whether or not it is filled by Sopoaga, Franklin's departure would create a considerable void that needs to be addressed. And two veteran ends who could slide into regular service should Sopoaga move to nose – Ray McDonald and Demetric Evans – both also could be headed for free agency in a new CBA.

Evans is an unrestricted free agent, and McDonald could join that category if four-year veterans are given that status. If McDonald becomes a restricted free agent, he becomes much easier to keep and the picture along the defensive line becomes clearer.

Concerns remain about his ability to consistently stop the run, but McDonald had a breakout season last year as the top reserve in the line rotation, particularly as a rushing specialist on passing downs, finishing second on the team in both quarterback hits and quarterback pressures to go with 58 tackles, one short of his career high.

Evans, entering his 10th season, is a role player, but he provides solid veteran depth and could be brought back at a reasonable offer. The 49ers, however, would like to accelerate the development of youngster Ricky Jean Francois, who can play both end and nose tackle and often spelled Franklin at the latter position last season. Francois flashes great promise but might not be ready now or ever for a full-time role.

The 49ers did not select a defensive lineman in this year's NFL draft, so they'll need to retain at least one of their impending free agents or find help elsewhere to keep this unit as a team strength.

There's no need to worry about right end, however. Smith is the constant star of the line, a warrior who's ferocious against the run and came on strong last year on passing downs, leading the 49ers with 8.5 sacks, 48 quarterback pressures and 73 quarterback hits while consistently wearing down opponents as games progressed.

Smith also was third on the team with 107 tackles and made a well-deserved second consecutive appearance in the Pro Bowl. He's been leading the charge among defensive players at player workouts during the lockout and appears primed for another big season at age 31. If the 49ers can hold up next to Smith like they have in recent seasons, they'll be in fine shape along the defensive line.

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