49ers 2007 draft/Moderate needs: DT
Current players: Marques Douglas, Ronnie Fields, Isaac Sopoaga, Aubrayo Franklin, Damane Duckett Projected starter: Aubrayo Franklin The current situation: Because they didn't have enough skill or power along their defensive line to play a true 3-4 system in 2006, the 49ers shifted to a base 4-3 scheme that - at the conclusion of the season - featured Douglas and Sopoaga inside as the starting tackles. That made Douglas, who was brought to San Francisco in 2005 to play end in a 3-4 system - his natural position that he played in Baltimore - one of the smallest starting defensive tackles in the NFL. But Douglas is a solid performer who plays with leverage and can hold his own in the defensive trenches, and the 49ers needed his skill inside because Sopoaga and Anthony Adams - who began last season as a starting tackle - could not hold up in the middle of a 3-4 scheme like a true nose tackle must to make the system successful. For Adams, who recently signed a free-agent deal with the Chicago Bears, it simply was a matter of not having the requisite bulk to fit the scheme. Adams could make plays with his quickness and technique, but he just as often could be moved out and pushed aside in the middle by bigger offensive linemen. Sopoaga - the largest player on San Francisco's 2006 roster at 332 pounds - has the size to fill the role but has yet to develop the instincts and technique necessary to perform adequately in the system. Sopoaga, a noted strongman, has always looked the part, and he had his moments in 2006 while starting the final two games of the season after Fields had been hurt. While he still has potential on size and strength alone, Sopoaga's now entering his fourth NFL season and is beginning to look like no more than a rotational backup, particularly in the kind of defense that San Francisco wants to run. Fields, after a nondescript rookie season, developed nicely as a NFL sophomore and took away Adams' starting job six weeks into the season before breaking his arm in December. At 6-2 and 310 pounds, Fields can hold the point of attack and is adequate on the nose, but he has the skills to also slide outside and play end, making him a versatile player who can play multiple positions in the line rotation. Franklin became a valuable component in Baltimore's defensive line rotation last season as Kelly Gregg's backup, and at wide-bodied 320 pounds, he's more of a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle who - as a fifth-year veteran - appears ready for an opportunity to step up as a regular. Duckett has intriguing size and ability at 6-6 and 300 pounds, but there is no way that he plays with the leverage to be a nose tackle, and there is talk the team is considering giving him a look on the other side of the ball this spring. If each player continues to develop, the 49ers could be well-stocked on the nose with the trio of Franklin/Sopoaga/Fields, and both Douglas, Duckett and starting left end Bryant Young have the ability to play tackle when and if the team shifts into 4-3 sets. But that's not to say the 49ers wouldn't mind adding a big young stud who could anchor the team's defense on the nose, or look for college tackles who could help them as 3-4 ends at the next level. When to address: Third or fourth round Who's out there: It's not a strong class of defensive tackles in this year's draft, particularly those who could start on the nose in a 3-4 system. It's possible Franklin is more prepared to make an immediate impact than any tackle the 49ers could have gotten in the draft this year, which makes their decision to acquire him a wise move. But there are big bodies out there who can help the team, upgrade the competition in training camp and eventually be a factor at the position. A perfect example is Fields, whom the 49ers found in the fifth round in 2005. North Carolina State's Tank Tyler could slip into the fourth round, and he's a prospect who could play on the nose. There are other college tackles who the 49ers would consider as base ends in their 3-4 system, but for pure nose tackle types, Utah's Paul Soliai and Fresno State's Luis Leonard still could be waiting in the later rounds, where they'd be worth a flyer. There are several mock drafts that have the 49ers taking Michigan's Alan Branch with their No. 11 overall pick in the first round, and while it would be tempting to take Branch if he's available in that spot - just a junior, Branch is universally considered the top defensive tackle coming out of college this year, and is a good candidate to anchor a 3-4 scheme - the 49ers appear more inclined to address other areas of higher need at No. 11. The 49ers have had Florida's Ray McDonald in for a visit, and while he's not likely a player they would select at No. 11, they'd consider McDonald and other top prospects who could slide out as a 3-4 end - such as Louisville's Amobi Okoye and Tennessee's Justin Harrell - should they be available later on the draft's opening day. Branch and Harrell also are among the list of college prospects scheduled for official visits with the team this week.
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