Roster breakdown: DL

SFI breaks down the 49ers' final 53-man roster by unit this week as the team closes in on Sunday's season opener against Atlanta. Today: Defensive line.

Starters: John Engelberger (left end), Anthony Adams (tackle), Bryant Young (tackle), Andre Carter (right end)

Backups: Otis Leverette, James Atkins, Tony Brown, Brandon Whiting, Andrew Williams

Practice squad: Josh Cooper

What's new: Adams slides into the starting tackle position next to Young, one of San Francisco's greatest defensive tackles in franchise history. Whiting comes over from Philadelphia in the Terrell Owens trade and figures to play a prominent role when healthy. The reserve corps was completely blown apart earlier this week when the Niners released Riddick Parker, Josh Shaw and Michael Landry before signing Leverette, Atkins and Brown.

What's to like: Well, let's see... Young still is respected throughout the league and draws double teams, which obviously gives opportunities to players around him. He's not the player he once was, but he still can make an impact and be a quality tackle as long as he gets some help. Adams still has potential to develop. Whiting, a starter in Philadelphia, can contribute at both end and at tackle in some defensive formations, and he should be a big help against the run. Bigger and stronger, Williams displayed some fine development before his broken leg in August, and he could provide some push on the edge when he returns at the end of September. Leverette, Atkins and Brown at least look like they could be better than the players they replaced. They'll have to be.

What's to wonder about: Entering his 11th season, is Young washed up? Some are wondering. His play fell off dramatically at times last season, though injuries may have contributed to that. He'll be on the hot seat to once again be a stalwart and leader of this weak unit. Adams was blown off the ball at times during the preseason and appears to be struggling in his adjustment to a full-time role. The pass rush provided absolutely no heat during the preseason, and that was a problem last year, too. Engelberger and Carter are athletic, but both are undersized and can be contained by quality tackles. There are a lot of those in the NFL, by the way. Despite his potential, Williams still is unproven after being a non-factor as a rookie. It may take Whiting some time to shake off the rust created by his long layoff after April shoulder surgery. Leverette, Atkins and Brown were picked up off the street five days before the beginning of the regular season. How much can anybody really expect from them?

Key preseason stat: The 49ers were trampled on the ground in their four exhibitions, finishing dead last in the NFL in both rushing defense and rushing average. They allowed opponents an average of 164.3 yards a game on the ground and 5.5 yards per carry.

Bottom line: It's pretty simple: This unit holds the key to San Francisco's entire season. The Niners will rely on their defense to keep them close in games while their young offense develops, and that defense will rely on the guys up front. They didn't get the job done during the preseason, but that could change once the starters begin getting most of the playing time. However, there are big questions whether Young and Adams can hold up like the team needs them to in the middle, and there is no quality depth behind them to create any kind of optimism. The pass rush needs to get in gear, too, to help San Francisco's defensive playmakers on third down. If the line can't do the job or at least hold its own, the talent the Niners have behind it at linebacker and in the secondary will be wasted, and it will be a long season in San Francisco.

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