Season preview positional analysis: DL

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Monday night's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with key questions facing each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Defensive line

The 49ers downsized their defensive line during the offseason but got bigger on that unit in the process.

After three years of experimenting with the system, the 49ers finally have made a total commitment to the 3-4 defensive scheme favored by coach Mike Nolan and new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. That meant reducing their starting front wall to three players instead of four and parting ways with popular veteran Anthony Adams, who was a poor fit in the 3-4.

Enter instead 340-pound Aubrayo Franklin, a true 3-4 nose tackle who was acquired in free agency and promptly placed in the starting lineup as the middle anchor of the defense ahead of two holdovers who played the position for San Francisco last year.

Franklin's bulk and 3-4 experience and capabilities finally give the 49ers the personnel to run the scheme, with veterans Bryant Young and Marques Douglas flanking Franklin on the ends and several young players pushing for playing time behind them.

Is the 3-4 here to stay?
Manusky, among others, promises that it is. That means the 49ers will need optimum production from this unit, which will lose a couple of roster spots in the transition. But versatile Ronnie Fields, who worked his way into the starting lineup at tackle last year, has the size (321 pounds) and skill to play nose tackle and also the quickness to play end, which might actually be a better fit for his ability. Throw in holdover Isaac Sopoaga (334 pounds), and the Niners finally have the size and strength they need at the point of attack to allow this system to succeed.

Can the front wall provide some push in the pass rush?
It's not the first priority for this unit, but San Francisco's weak pass rush needs help wherever it can get it. Young had 5.5 sacks and Douglas had three last year in the 4-3 system, and the team would like them to provide some heat in this area when they're on the field. Young, a four-time All-Pro as a defensive tackle earlier in his career, has made a smooth transition to the edge and may be given more liberty to rush the passer than typical 3-4 ends. Rookie end Ray McDonald also may be cut loose to rush the passer in some sub-package alignments, but the 49ers primarily will be looking for this unit to hold its ground and remain true to assignments, which means the outside linebackers should be the sack leaders on this team.

Will Jim Tomsula make a difference for this unit?
It was no secret the defensive line as a group needed someone to light a fire underneath it, and that's exactly what the vocal and energetic Tomsula has done. In replacing Gary Emanuel, who was fired by Nolan in January after two seasons as the team's defensive line coach, Tomsula has brought new energy to the unit and also a communication with his players that wasn't necessarily there before. "We have a new coach who I love," said Douglas, a seventh-year veteran. "I think he's gong to be a real difference-maker for us making some plays up front. He's an excellent communicator, and I thank coach Nolan for bringing him in, because we haven't had it like that in the last couple of years. Now that he's here, he's going to make sure that we're feeling good about the team, but then again, he's going to make sure we play hard, and I love that."

The bottom line: The defensive line was one of San Francisco's weaker areas last year, and whether the 49ers will be better along this unit in 2007 probably will be determined by scheme. But Young and Douglas are both a year older and Franklin wasn't a starter during his first four NFL seasons in Baltimore, so it's difficult to see where this unit is better on paper, unless Sopoaga's summer emergence carries over into the regular season and youngsters Fields and McDonald step up and make significant contributions.

Starters for season opener: Bryant Young (LE), Aubrayo Franklin (NT), Marques Douglas (RE)
Reserves: Ronnie Fields (DE/NT), Isaac Sopoaga (NT), Ray McDonald (DE/NT), Atiyyah Ellison (DT)
Key new arrivals: Aubrayo Franklin (T), Ray McDonald (E)
Key departures: Anthony Adams (DT-DE)
Defensive line coach: Jim Tomsula, first year with team, first year of NFL experience

Strengths: Experienced veteran quality in starting ends Bryant Young and Marques Douglas, who both have played tackle in a 4-3 scheme earlier in their careers. A true 3-4 nose tackle with both the size and skill to play the position in Aubrayo Franklin. Some promising young backups led by the versatile Ronnie Fields.

Weaknesses: Young is 35 and nearing the end of his career. None of the team's nose tackles has more than spot starting experience at the position. Several players are still learning the 3-4 system.

Fact check: Bryant Young led all San Francisco defensive linemen in sacks for the second season in a row with 5.5 and now ranks third in team history with 83 sacks. The 14th-year veteran enters the 2007 season sixth among the NFL's active sack leaders.

Vital stat I: 28.5: Sacks by the 49ers in 2006, when the team ranked 21st in the NFL in sacks per play.

Vital stat II: 17: Sacks by San Francisco defensive linemen in 2006.

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