Season in review: Defensive line

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2006 season by position, analyzing what went right and wrong during the year and identifying the changes that took place and the players who stood out during the course of the season. Who's the unit MVP, the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise? Who overachieved and underachieved? Who's on the rise and on the slide? It's all here. Today: Defensive line

Defensive linemen on final 53-man roster: DE Bryant Young, DT Isaac Sopoaga, DT/DE Marques Doulgas, DE Melvin Oliver, DT Anthony Adams, DT Lance Legree, DT Damane Duckett, DE Roderick Green

Starters in season opener: LE Bryant Young, DT Anthony Adams, DT Marques Douglas, RE Melvin Oliver

Starters in season finale: LE Bryant Young, DT Isaac Sopoaga, DT Marques Douglas, RE Melvin Oliver

Unit MVP: Bryant Young

Top newcomer: Melvin Oliver

Most improved: Ronnie Fields

Biggest disappointment: Isaac Sopoaga

Biggest surprise: Melvin Oliver

On the rise: Ronnie Fields

On the slide: Anthony Adams

Overachiever: Marques Douglas

Underachiever: Isaac Sopoaga

What went right: The 49ers found a keeper in rookie Oliver, the third of the team's three sixth-round draft picks in 2006 who established himself as one of San Francisco's top 11 defenders a few weeks into training camp, convincing the 49ers - who still don't have the ideal to personnel to play their preferred 3-4 defensive scheme - to switch back to a 4-3 to take advantage of Oliver's strength defending the run. That alignment was better suited to San Francisco's personnel, and for much of the 2006 season, the 49ers got the most out of this unit, which still is lacking in quality talent and playmakers. Young continued to play at a high level in his 13th NFL season, recording another fine season with 60 tackles and 5.5 sacks, the most among the team's defensive linemen. He could still be a disruptive force and attract double-team attention, though not at the same level as recent seasons, and was named an NFC alternate for the Pro Bowl. Douglas had his finest season as a 49er, challenging Young for unit MVP honors and playing much more stout against the run than it would seem possible as an undersized 285-pound tackle. Douglas led defensive linemen and finished third on the team with 75 tackles, and he also contributed three sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. The 49ers got a big push in October from the much-improved Fields, who took away the starting inside tackle position in Week 6 from Adams, who had held it for much of the past three seasons. Fields provided some run-plugging bulk the 49ers were missing in the middle and played well within in the system. Adams made contributions (29 tackles, two sacks) both before and after losing his starting role and Sopoaga also made occasional contributions (28 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Green, who was picked up before the season opener and then released after the team's second game, was re-signed in Week 10 and came on as a pass rusher from the edge, recording 4.5 sacks over a six-game stretch late in the season. Green is more of a 3-4 linebacker, but the 49ers used him primarily as a defensive end in third-down pass-rushing situations. Playing collectively better than the sum of its parts, this unit held five opponents to 90 yards or fewer rushing in 2006 as the 49ers finished 19th in the NFL against the run and 16th in rushing average allowed, San Francisco's best finished among 12 defensive categories recorded by the NFL.

What went wrong: This unit had to overachieve to be competitive and keep the 49ers in games, and it often was too much to ask. The 49ers had problems matching up with opponents here in both size and talent. In a scheme that demands he occupy interior blockers, the 5-foot-11, 297-pound Adams simply was too small for the role and the 49ers had to turn to the 310-pound Fields after the 332-pound Sopoaga - who has the best size for the role - did not display enough consistency or fire to handle the job. Fields was adequate - and sometimes better - until he broke his arm in practice in late December, forcing him onto the injured reserve list for the final two weeks of the season. The 49ers went back to Sopoaga as the starter in those final two games, and he played better than earlier in the season, when his play slipped to the point that he was made inactive in favor of Duckett for a Week 8 game at Chicago. While Oliver is solid against the run, he is not much of a factor rushing the passer and finished with just one sack as he often was replaced on passing downs. The unit as a whole did not provide enough push in the pass rush for the 49ers to be successful, perhaps because it held the responsibility for the entire defense to provide pressure when opponents went into passing mode. The team's leader in sacks, linebacker Brandon Moore with 6.5, often lined up as a defensive end on passing downs to help provide better pressure. Young, while still an effective player, showed some signs of wearing down and he could be handled by the extra blockers opponents sent his way because nobody else on the line required such attention. This was a unit that could be worn down by opponents, as was demonstrated in the nine games in which the 49ers allowed 123 or more yards on the ground.

Looking forward in 2007: This is San Francisco's biggest area of need in 2007, and a place the 49ers have to upgrade if they intend to take the next step defensively. The biggest need is an effective edge pass rusher who also can stay on the field in more than just third-down situations. The 49ers will seriously consider entering the bidding wars for top free agents such as pass-rusher premier Dwight Freeney (Colts), though the team might be more included to focus on adding a better all-around end who also can upgrade the pass rush such as Charles Grant (Saints), Patrick Kerney (Falcons) or Cory Redding (Lions), among others. The 49ers also need a big-bodied tank to plunk down in the middle of their defense since Sopoaga doesn't appear up to the role, at least on a regular basis. If the team finally makes the switch to the 3-4 scheme this year as it intends, having a big body in the middle is essential. While the 49ers probably can get by with Fields and Sopoaga if both players continue to improve, adding another player to upgrade the competition and depth at nose tackle should be a top priority. Adams, though he still has something to offer as a quick, versatile tackle who also can slide out to end, probably won't be asked back as an unrestricted free agent simply because the team needs to get that big body at the position, which is the roster spot Adams occupies. The 49ers will take a long look in the draft at some of the top defensive linemen coming out of college, including tackle Alan Branch (Michigan) and ends Gaines Adams (Clemson), Quentin Moses (Georgia) and Lamarr Woodley (Michigan), among others. The 49ers also have to be prepared for the possibility Young might retire rather than return for a 14th season with the team, though it appears he intends to come back. If Young does return, he's still good enough to start on this line, but the 49ers will need to find his eventual replacement and start rotating that player into the position to keep Young fresh and playing at a top level. Douglas, Oliver and Fields all are players who will make key contributions in San Francisco's future rotation along the defensive line, but the 49ers could stand to upgrade their starting talent at either of those three spots, and need to upgrade at least one of them to get better up front defensively.

Final 2006 unit grade: C

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