Insider analysis: Tully Banta-Cain

Now that the 49ers are committed to the 3-4 scheme as their base defense, versatile linebackers who can bring the heat as edge rushers are vital to the team's success. Tully Banta-Cain came to the 49ers from New England in the offseason, so can he step up and get the job done? Patriots expert Jon Scott spends some time at SFI to tell us everything there is to know about Banta-Cain.

Jon Scott, The departure of Banta-Cain from New England was not unexpected. While some questioned the reasoning behind letting a possible starting player go via free agency – especially when the Patriots needed linebackers – the decision was made not to pursue re-signing him. Four years was long enough to get a look at Banta-Cain's ability and potential, and they didn't value him enough to make a push to keep him.

Known for his ability to get to the quarterback from the defensive end position in college, Banta-Cain was asked to move to the linebacker position in the Patriots' 3-4 defensive scheme. He played behind veterans who made the same transition before him, so he had some talented starters to learn the ropes from. In his four seasons at Foxboro, Banta-Cain never fully fit the role envisioned for him in New England, even though he was given plenty of time to learn.

One reason Banta-Cain never played much in New England was that Willie McGinest was the starter on one side while Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin rotated in at the other. Banta-Cain was fourth on the depth chart at OLB. Until McGinest took a breather, Banta-Cain didn't see much action except on special teams.

When McGinest left for Cleveland, it gave Banta-Cain his shot at the starting role. The season before, Tully told me that he planned on making the most of it (anytime McGinest wasn't in the game), and when I asked him last year, he repeated that sentiment. Generally a decent guy, you had to give Tully the benefit of the doubt heading into the 2006 season. He was a hard worker, he hustled on special teams, rarely receiving negative feedback from the coaches, and he worked hard to improve.

It just wasn't meant to be. Opponents saw Banta-Cain as the weak link in the Patriots run defense. He could get to the quarterback (as evidenced by his career-best 5.5 sacks), but he had trouble holding the point of attack against the run. It was so bad in the postseason, the Patriots made lineup changes, which put Banta-Cain back into a reserve role.

How Banta-Cain fares in San Francisco is anyone's guess. 2006 was his best opportunity to take the reins of the starting job, and he just wasn't able to lock it down. If the 49ers want him to put pressure on the QB, great, they found their guy. But if opponents watch game tape and see that Banta-Cain has a tendency to rush past the point of attack (lose position), then the 49ers defense will be susceptible against the run to his side.

Craig Massei's take: Banta-Cain was pretty much handed the starting role at right outside linebacker during spring drills, but to his credit, he ran with it and is a firm No. 1 on the depth chart entering training camp. Banta-Cain was overweight when he reported to the team's May minicamp - at 280, about 15 pounds above his playing weight - but he moved around well and might consider playing a little heavier this year to increase his power and strength in run support. Banta-Cain is a talker whose intensity and on-field banter impressed coaches during the spring, and his burst off the edge gives him the potential to be San Francisco's top pass rusher in 2007. The 49ers will need complete performance from him, however, as a base linebacker, so he will have to step up against the run, which as noted by Jon Scott is not a strength in his game. But he settled in well with the San Francisco defense this spring and should provide an upgrade for the defense, particularly with his experience in the 3-4, which is not an easy defense to learn and is even more difficult to master - especially for edge linebackers who may have more responsibility in the scheme than any other player.

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