Douglas becoming a defensive demon

It's sort of difficult not to notice Marques Douglas during 49ers games these days. He's the undersized, overachieving defensive end making tackle after tackle along the line of scrimmage. He's the guy with the barrel chest and quick first step who's beating the NFL's best offensive tackles off the snap. He's the guy who's all over the place making plays stopping the run and rushing the passer.

He's the guy who, as the 49ers return from their bye week to face the New York Giants on Sunday, leads the NFL with seven tackles for a loss, leads all San Francisco defensive linemen with 35 tackles and is second on the team with 2.5 sacks.

He's the guy playing some of the best football of his life and some of the best football on a defense that carried the 49ers through the first five games of the season.

And yet, as far as the NFL big picture is concerned, Douglas toils in relative obscurity, playing with a chip on his shoulder pad in a constant quest for respect.

How can this possibly be?

"I'm not that big, shiny defensive lineman that people want," Douglas surmised in an interview with SFI. "I know when guys look at me, they see 6-2, 285 pounds. Not drafted. I'm overlooked because I'm not 6-5, I'm not 300 pounds. I've been underrated ever since I've been in the league."

There's only one way to change that. And that's what Douglas has been doing since the season began, becoming a terror in the trenches that simply cannot be ignored.

It's something, really, that Douglas has been doing since he came to the 49ers as a free agent in 2005, when he followed Mike Nolan west across the continent after they spent the previous three seasons together with the rugged defense of the Baltimore Ravens.

But this year, his fifth as a starter, Douglas has turned it up a notch.

"Coming into the year, I put the claim out there that I consider myself one of the best 3-4 defensive ends out there," Douglas said. "And once I said it, I have to live up to it. So, that's a goal of mine. Respect. That's my No. 1 thing. I'm tired of being disrespected and tired of being overlooked."

Douglas has that respect in the San Francisco locker room – he was voted by teammates this year as the season captain for the defensive line, ahead of a guy named Bryant Young – but if he sounds a bit bent out of shape, it's because of the circuitous route he has taken to make it in the NFL.

Douglas went undrafted out of college after starting 40 games at Howard University, where his 39.5 career sacks were a school record and left him second among the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's all-time leaders.

That earned him a look with Baltimore as a rookie free agent, and while the Ravens were in the process of assembling one of the most ferocious defensive units in NFL history, Douglas made enough of an impression to spend 14 weeks on the team's practice squad, eventually making it up to Baltimore's 53-man roster for the final two weeks of the season.

He then was allocated to NFL Europa the next spring, finishing second in the league with nine sacks and earning All-NFL Europa honors while leading the Rhein Fire to the World Bowl.

Thus began Douglas' odyssey on the NFL fringe. Waived by Baltimore later that summer - the Ravens, loaded to the hilt with talent along the defensive line, would win the Super Bowl that season - Douglas then was signed, waived and then re-signed by New Orleans. He played one game with the Saints before injuring his knee and spending the rest of the season on injured reserve.

Douglas spent the first 11 weeks of the 2001 season on the Saints' practice squad before the Ravens, who hadn't forgotten about that unheralded rookie from two seasons before, signed him to their active roster in November.

He worked his way into the starting lineup by October. But then, in his first career start, he tore a knee ligament and again spent the rest of the year on injured reserve.

But Douglas kept persevering. He rehabbed the knee, became a full-time starter for the Ravens the next season, and reached San Francisco's bye week this year having started 67 of 69 games over the past five seasons.

"Marques is a guy I've known for a long time, and he had to do a lot of things to become a NFL player," said Nolan, who played an instrumental role in Douglas' development during his tenure as Baltimore's defensive coordinator from 2002-2004.

"He's a guy I believe in recognizing for all his strengths," Nolan continued. "He's not your typical 3-4 end, because usually you have bigger guys. But he is a very intelligent player, a very crafty player, he's tough and he's a real good competitor. I think he's an overachiever to a large degree, which is a compliment, not a criticism. He's a guy that plays with a lot of heart and passion and gives it his all."

And, Douglas says, he still has a lot to give. At age 30, the late-blossoming veteran feels he just now is entering his prime.

"I am 30, but I haven't really played that much," Douglas said. "I started out two years on the practice squad, then two years on injured reserve. I'm missing four years, so my body is feeling good and I'm feeling healthy. I feel young, like I'm just starting to come into my own."

Douglas gets no argument there. He gets the most out of his ability, using his smarts and technique to get the better of bigger offensive linemen.

And Douglas usually is doing it against some of the NFL's best offensive linemen. As a right end, he's often going toe-to-toe with highly-paid left tackles who are considered the top linemen in the game.

"He plays against some awfully good guys," Nolan said. "He's going against the best tackles that there are in the game. For him to continue to be this successful is quite a thing. He's just an average talented guy. There are a lot of guys with more talent than he has that don't get (as much) out of their play. But he's got a lot of heart and soul that goes into his performance, and you can win with that. He's respected."

But therein lies the rub for Douglas. Even when Nolan sings his praises, the coach also in a backhanded way reinforces the perception that Douglas gets better production than his physical tools and talent would typically yield.

Douglas can't do anything about that. But he can keep on trying. And succeeding. And sooner or later, his standout play just becomes impossible to ignore.

Douglas' best season statistically was with the Ravens in 2004, when he produced career-high totals of 92 tackles and 5.5 sacks. But heading into this week's game, he is on a pace to shatter those totals with 112 tackles and eight sacks.

Coincidentally, Douglas isn't just playing for respect. Now in the final season of the three-year, $4.5 million deal he signed to join the 49ers, Douglas also is playing for a new contract.

Nolan said the 49ers are "focused on the season right now rather than the urgency in signing" potential free agents, but he also made a point to say, "In the future, I'd love to have him on this team. For right now, we're just putting that on hold as far as that goes."

It's nothing new for Douglas. He continues to play like he has to keep proving himself, just like he always has.

"I need to keep working hard to prove that I can stay around," Douglas said. "You don't know what management is thinking. I can't control the contract situation, I can't control who's brought in, but I can control what I do. So I'm taking it upon myself to just step up and really cease any questions that anybody has about me.

"I know those questions are still out there. Whenever we have an offseason, they're always asking about bringing in defensive ends, bringing in the D-line. Those guys who lift you up will be the same guys who'll say at the end of the season that we need more defensive ends or we need a bigger defensive tackle.

"I want them to put that to rest. I'm here, I want to play here for a long time, and I just want to be an asset to my team. I want to be one of those guys that's not going to be replaced here."

The way Douglas is playing this season, it's much more likely the 49ers soon will be paying him to stay.

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