Grading the talent: Defensive line and LBs

The talent level on the San Francisco defense was a subject open to criticism during the 2006 season, so SFI asked former NFL scout Russ Lande to take a detailed look at what the 49ers have at each position on that side of the football. Here, Russ analyzes the defensive line and linebackers and gives his overall summary of the team's defensive unit as the 49ers head into 2007.

FRONT LINE

Bryant Young could start for a lot of teams, but he's not the dominant guy he was during the middle of his career. He's big, strong, and competitive. He does his job, and doesn't make mistakes. He's still a good football player, no question.

Ronald Fields has all the talent in the world. He has the tools to be a really good nose tackle in this league. He's a big, thick-bodied, strong kid. He can toss blockers, and he's athletic enough to make plays in small areas. You just don't see it from him all the time, but I think part of that is also, when you play two-gap, it is a hard position for the defensive tackle to constantly make plays. I think he is a good player for them; as he develops I think he will be a good, solid starter.

Marques Douglas is a pro's pro. He's strong, competitive, and is another guy who does his job and doesn't make mistakes. He handles his responsibilities. He is not an impact-play type guy; he's more of a two-gap guy, which is what they want. Not a guy who would fit into a scheme where you want explosive defensive linemen, but a guy who does his job, plays smart, is always in the right spot and makes plays if it is within his frame.

Melvin Oliver is talented, competitive and athletic. He's more of a backup type in the NFL than a starter. But in the Niners' defense he is good enough to play snaps, rotate in and do a solid job as a backup. I don't think he is what you want as a starter. But he is a good, solid backup player.

Anthony Adams is talented, athletic and competitive - he has what you want in those areas, but the problem is that he's a short guy at 5-foot-11 and change. And no matter how well you play, if you are short offensive linemen can wrap you up - they can literally engulf you - and I think that is part of the problem he's run into. For an athlete he is phenomenal, but I just wonder if he is best suited in a defense where his job is just to shoot gaps, get into the backfield and disrupt plays, not as a fireplug where he has to hold the point of attack. He is small already, and then when you ask him to stay home and take on and hold the point of attack, that's hard for a guy like him. I think he is better running to the ball. He could be a starter in the right scheme, but he is not a guy that every team that plays the right scheme would be pounding down his door to sign him. He is a guy who would probably be overlooked, sign somewhere and all of a sudden he's starting.

A lot of people really liked Isaac Sopoaga when he came out of college, but he just never really became the player people had hoped. It's hard to figure out why he hasn't progressed, but I know coming out of college there were a lot of people who thought he was going to be a player in this league. He's been given some chances but he has not been the consistently productive guy that they need. That's why he's not starting.

LINEBACKERS

I think Manny Lawson has showed to a lot of people exactly what they expected - he's a guy who is a very good athlete, he is going to flash big-play potential. But he's not going to show that all the time, as you'd want to see. I can't tell you exactly what the Niners think about him, but I would think they probably have been very excited about him athletically and competitively and with his flashes, but I think they may be a little disappointed with his ability to consistently make a big play in a key situation when they need it. I think they are happy with his progress, and for a rookie I think he is definitely showing that he has the talent to be a good starter down the road. I think he has the physical ability of a Julian Peterson - Lawson can run, he's athletic, but I don't know if he is as naturally instinctive or as natural a football player as Peterson is. Peterson is one of those guys, from college on to the pros, who has the knack to make the play in crunch time. I have not seen that yet from Lawson, in college or the pros, on a consistent basis. I don't know that he will ever develop into the productive player that Peterson was for the 49ers.

For an inside linebacker, Derek Smith is the kind of guy you want. He's tough, hard-nosed, very active and very smart. He knows exactly what he has to do on every play. He really is a leader on the field; he's almost a coach on the field. He makes sure everything is going the right way. And, when the pile gets up, he is constantly the guy wrapped around the ball carrier. He's a good football player. He could definitely start on other teams.

When I watched film on Brandon Moore a year ago, he was a guy who jumped out. I didn't know anything about his background, but the guy just makes a lot of plays. When you watch him, he just has a knack for being around the ball and making plays, and a lot of them are impact plays, be it sacks or whatever. I like him, he's the type of a guy who gets overlooked, but when you watch the film and evaluate him, he does a good job. He's a good football player.

If a team can put Jeff Ulbrich in a scheme where he can be protected from blockers, I think he has the talent to play in a 4-3 defense, where he can run to the ball a little bit more. That is what he is best at - diagnosing the play and running. If you want him to be a guy who takes on blocks and sheds, I don't think he is as strong at that. But I think he can start for someone, but he's not suited to the 3-4 scheme the 49ers ultimately want to play. He is never going to be great when he has to deal with blockers on a regular basis.

T.J. Slaughter is a tough kid who has been around the league awhile. He's smart, instinctive, just not really physically gifted. I think the guy who will make the biggest impact next year is Parys Haralson. I think he will be starting at one of the spots next year. He's a better pass rusher than Lawson. He's not the athlete Lawson is, but he is just a polished pass rusher who gets to the quarterback. I think he can be an every-down linebacker. I think if they put Lawson out there, they could but Haralson on the other outside spot, with Moore and Smith in the middle, and I think you'd have four pretty solid linebackers. They could even put Haralson at end and play some 4-3. He just knows how to get to the quarterback, and that is so hard to find.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY

I'd say the 49ers' overall talent on defense is between average to above average. When you look at guys like Bryant Young and Manny Lawson, (cornerback) Walt Harris, Derek Smith and Marques Douglas, you have five guys who are good, solid starters. Then you have other guys like Fields and (cornerback) Shawntae Spencer that have the talent but haven't become the player they are capable of yet. It's not like this team is bereft of talent and the defense is bad because they lack talent. It's bad because you have a lot of guys learning on the job. They have lot of young guys, and very rarely do a bunch of young guys on a unit mature overnight. A year from now, if Lawson and Haralson are playing, and Spencer and Fields are still starting, at least three of those guys will be good starters by then. I think the 49ers are on the road to becoming a good defense, but they have to find a way to get to the quarterback yet. You could have the best back seven in the league, or back eight if you are playing a 3-4, but if you can't get to the quarterback you'll look terrible every week.

Former NFL Scout Russ Lande, draft analyst and author of GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft, an annual publication, contributes periodically to SFI. To find out more about Lande and GM Jr, visit the web site www.gmjr.com.


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