SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The San Francisco 49ers will have new starters all over the place in 2015, including along the defensive line.
Last season was the last time former All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith lined up next to mainstay Ray McDonald, who started at least 14 games in each season since 2011 in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense. McDonald was a good player for the 49ers since joining the starting lineup, before his string of arrests involving domestic violence allegations led to his release last December.
And after the Chicago Bears took a chance and signed McDonald this spring, reuniting him with San Francisco’s former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, he was arrested, again, for domestic violence and possible child endangerment in May. The Bears released McDonald, and then he was arrested two days later for violating a restraining order.
Smith is clearly the bigger loss of the two. He continued to play at a high level in 2014, despite arm and shoulder injuries that nagged him during his final few seasons, ultimately leading to his retirement at 35. He missed just two starts since joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2008, playing in 110 of 112 possible regular season games. He also played in all eight playoff games with San Francisco from 2011 to 2013.
Even with Smith’s playing time down paired with McDonald’s tumultuous season, San Francisco ranked seventh in the NFL against the run, allowing 100.8 yards per game.
Smith’s gradual decline in playing time over his final two years allowed for younger players Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine and Tony Jerod-Eddie to gain valuable experience. Those three are poised for even bigger roles in 2015, along with Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams, who both missed significant portions of last year with injuries.
Dorsey sustained a torn biceps tendon early in training camp that prevented him from playing at all last season, while Williams appeared in nine games before breaking a bone in his lower leg in Week 10’s loss to the New Orleans Saints. It was Williams’ second fracture in his lower leg in just over a year, after he sustained a broken ankle in Week 2 of 2013, which required four surgeries before he returned to the field.
Williams, 25, a former undrafted free agent in 2011, had a very productive year as the team’s top nose tackle with Dorsey on the shelf, before getting injured in November. He excelled against the run, and earned praise from his teammates, including Smith, who said he believed Williams was one of the best nose tackles in football, when healthy.
During the offseason program, Williams, Dorsey and Dial comprised the starting defensive line in base situations. That’s notable, because Dorsey has taken up playing defensive end after strictly playing nose tackle in 2013 when joining San Francisco as a free agent from the Kansas City Chiefs. Carradine and Jerod-Eddie received most of their work in nickel passing situations.
Of course, newcomer Darnell Dockett, the former Arizona Cardinal, was still recovering from last season’s ACL tear, and unable to participate in spring practices, allowing Dorsey to work with the first team.
The big wild card of the group is first-round pick Arik Armstead, who missed the offseason program because of NFL rules prohibiting college players to join their teams before their school’s graduation. Oregon is on the quarter system, preventing Armstead from practicing with the team, despite not being in school and living in his home town of Sacramento.
49ers defensive linemen on 90-man roster
Arik Armstead (6-7, 292)
Glenn Dorsey (6-1, 297)
Lawrence Okoye (6-6, 304)
Marcus Rush (6-3, 251)
Tank Carradine (6-4, 295)
Quinton Dial (6-5, 318)
Darnell Dockett (6-4, 290)
Tony Jerod-Eddie (6-5, 301)
Kaleb Ramsey (6-3, 285)
Mike Purcell (6-3, 303)
Garrison Smith (6-1, 300)
Ian Williams (6-1, 305)
Here’s what we know about the defensive line battle heading into training camp:
—The learning curve shouldn’t be too steep for Armstead, who played the same “four technique” in Oregon’s 3-4 that he will with the 49ers. Armstead is still considered a raw prospect, and mentioned an ankle injury suffered early last season that caused a drop in production that many critiqued during the draft evaluation process. If Armstead is healthy and able to improve his strength in the weight room, he will be right in the mix for playing time. General manager Trent Baalke has never been shy about allowing his first-round picks to create roles on the team during their rookie seasons.
—Dorsey will be an interesting player to watch. He will likely be asked to play some defensive end in running downs, while backing up Williams at nose tackle. Dorsey did some of the best work of his career after switching to nose tackle with the 49ers in 2013. It remains to be seen how he’ll play as a D-end in a 3-4 scheme with San Francisco after struggling in a similar role with the Chiefs, leading to his departure from the team that took him with the fifth-overall pick in 2008.
—Dial might be the 49ers’ strongest defensive player now that Smith is back on his ranch in Missouri. He is stout against the run and will likely be a starting defensive end in base packages. Carradine and Dial compliment each other well, with Carradine being the more explosive pass rusher. Expect the two to rotate at the right defensive end spot with Dockett getting the majority of playing time on the left side, where he received most of his reps during his 10 years with the Cardinals.
—After receiving just 18 preseason snaps in 2013, former British Olympian Lawrence Okoye played in 42 plays last August. He spent last season on the practice squad after being shut down after his first preseason with an apparent knee injury. With two full seasons of football under his belt, the 49ers should have enough information by the end of training camp to decide if Okoye is worth a spot somewhere on the team. Remember, things might be different for Okoye this season with his former position coach getting promoted to head coach, leaving Jim Tomsula less time to give Okoye one-on-one instruction. And San Francisco will have to decide if they want a developmental player on the practice squad, rather than someone they feel comfortable with sticking in a game due to injuries. San Francisco has plenty of other practice squad candidates who have been playing football far longer than Okoye.
—Rush, an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, is really a linebacker listed as a defensive lineman on the team’s official roster. During the spring, he did the majority of his work as an outside pass rusher.
—Second-year player Kaleb Ramsey missed his entire rookie season while dealing with an Achilles injury, joining the growing list of Baalke’s “red-shirt” rookies he buys low during the draft process because of injuries. Ramsey is already 26 and hasn’t play a down in the NFL, mostly because he stayed at Boston College for six seasons because of an array injuries. If he can finally stay healthy and plays well during the preseason, he’s a candidate to compete with Okoye for a potential spot on the practice squad.
—Last season, San Francisco broke camp with eight defensive lineman. Barring injury, seven players look like safe bets to make the 53-man roster this year: Dial, Carradine, Williams, Dorsey, Dockett, Armstead, and Jerod-Eddie. That leaves Ramsey, Okoye, Mike Purcell and Garrison Smith left to battle for a final spot, or place on the practice squad.