Changes coming as defense will get younger

Although the 49ers need a lot of help on offense, many of their changes this year are expected to occur on the other side of the ball. Already, the 49ers have lost veteran defensive lineman Bryant Young - one of the greatest players in franchise history - to retirement, and have cut ties with linebacker Derek Smith, who started seven seasons with the club.

Moreover, the 49ers have two free agents on the defensive line - end Marques Douglas and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga - and a serious need to acquire an outside pass rusher with the start of free agency looming Friday.

The 49ers showed a lot of improvement on defense last season, but the team's offense led the league in three-and-outs, so the improved play was not necessarily reflected in the statistical columns.

The 49ers have nearly $30 million salary cap room entering free agency, so they can afford to spend some money. There was a report last season that they went hard after Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs at the trade deadline. Briggs is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, but it's unclear how much he is needed when the 49ers already have Patrick Willis.

Also, the 49ers would have been interested in defensive end Justin Smith a year ago, but the Cincinnati Bengals made him their franchise player. Smith is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this season as the Bengals franchised another player. The 49ers are expected to pursue Smith, who is expected to get a lucrative free-agent contract.

The 49ers expect to add two players of starting quality to the defensive line whether through free agency or the draft.

To replace Derek Smith, the club has some candidates already on the roster. Smith played the strong inside linebacker position last season. It is more of a dirty-work spot, ensuring that Willis is free to roam and make tackles. With that role, the 49ers could promote Brandon Moore to the starting lineup.

Moore was among the 49ers' best defensive players in 2006 after he was moved into the starting lineup in the middle of the season. Moore led the 49ers in tackles. But he was ousted from his starting job last season, and saw action only as a defensive end in pass-rush situations.

The 49ers also have the option of finding a linebacker with a bargain free agent or in the middle rounds of the draft.

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The San Francisco defense will have a decidedly different look without Young and Derek Smith, whom the 49ers hoped would retire, rather than the team be forced to make the move to release him. Smith led the club in tackles each of his first five years after coming to the 49ers as a free agent.

"We made the decision because we have quality linebackers who we think are the future of the 49ers," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Derek was a model professional during his seven seasons with the 49ers, and he influenced a lot of the younger players with his work ethic."

Nolan suggested Smith was released because the 49ers already feel good about the players on their roster. Moore played very well when given a chance to see significant playing time in 2006. However, he failed to hold onto a starting job in training camp last season. Smith and rookie Patrick Willis were the starters at inside linebacker.

While Willis excelled and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, Smith's play dropped off noticeably. His declining speed forced the 49ers to relegate his role to a one-down player. By the end of the season, Smith saw action only on first downs against the opponents' base offensive personnel.

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Smith said he does not plan to retire after the 49ers released him. The 49ers made the playoffs his first two seasons with the club, but fell on hard times the past five seasons.

"I enjoyed my time with the 49ers over the last seven years," Smith said. "It is unfortunate that we did not accomplish what we wanted to during that time. I wish the team the best of luck, and I hope they get to where they want to be soon. In the meantime, it is time for me to move on and find another team in the NFL."

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The move to release Smith saves the 49ers $3.28 million on the salary cap. The 49ers are approximately $28.6 million under the projected cap of $116 million after the decision to tender tight end Billy Bajema at the low amount of $927,000.

The 49ers would receive a seventh-round pick as compensation if another team signs Bajema to an offer sheet and the 49ers decline to match.

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The club is waiting to hear official word from guard Larry Allen about his plans. Allen, scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, is contemplating retirement. The 49ers would be willing to bring him back next season only if he plays at a price considerably less than his $4.2 million average of the past two seasons.

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Veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer is also not expected back for next season. The 49ers expect Dilfer to retire after he sat out the final 3.5 games of the season with a concussion.

Dilfer, who turns 36 in March, worked for the NFL Network during the Senior Bowl and Super Bowl. Quarterbacks Alex Smith and Shaun Hill are scheduled to compete for the starting job this year, thus making Dilfer expendable.

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There were rumors immediately after the season that coach Mike Nolan had fired offensive line coach George Warhop after the club surrendered a team-record 55 sacks. Warhop returns to the coaching staff, but he'll have some help.

The 49ers hired Chris Foerster, formerly the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line coach. Foerster has also been offensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. The move to hire Foerster as co-line coach is curious. Neither has been given any specific role, such as coaching only the tackles or guards, or responsibilities in the run game or pass protection.

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The 49ers do not figure to use their franchise tag on any player this offseason, but that does not mean they are not interested in keeping any of their own free agents.

No. 1 on the list right now appears to be Sopoaga, who increased his level of consistency last season as part of the defensive line rotation. Sopoaga is expected to command good money, so the chances of the 49ers re-signing him will likely diminish once he hits the open market.

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