EDITOR'S NOTE: We're back! Apologies for the lack of posts since minicamp. Life - and moving - have gotten in the way significantly. I'm still working without an in-home internet connection so don't be surprised if you see me at your local south bay caffeinating establishment hammering away. With the start of training camp slated for July 23, we'll resume our position spotlight series with a look at the 49ers' defensive linemen.
Defensive Linemen on the 90-man roster
Ramsey (draft, seventh round - 243 overall)
The 49ers' finished with the third-ranked rushing defense in the NFL last year thanks to a front seven that's been among the league's best since defensive coordinator Vic Fangio began calling the shots in 2011. The team's talented linebackers garner the most attention for those successes, but they would be unable to play at their typically high levels without solid play from the big uglies in front eating blocks from offensive linemen.
The theme around the defensive line in 2013 was the increased level of rotation after Justin Smith and Ray McDonald saw over 1,000 snaps during the team's Super Bowl run in 2012 - and the myriad of injuries they dealt with as a result. Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs played significant roles as reserve defensive ends while newcomer Glenn Dorsey made a solid first impression at nose tackle after coming over from Kansas City in free agency.
Ian Williams broke camp as the starting nose tackle, but broke his ankle in Week 2 against the Seahawks allowing Dorsey to get all the snaps with the first team defense going forward. Dorsey's struggles with the Chiefs were well-documented after failing to live up to expectations after getting drafted fifth-overall in 2008. After working with position coach Jim Tomsula, Dorsey adapted to nose tackle in the 49ers' scheme with relative ease and had an outstanding season, particularly against the run.
McDonald played 352 fewer snaps in 2013 due to ankle and biceps injuries plus the team's increased reliance on rotating up front. He finished with five sacks and 30 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. Smith appeared in every game and led San Francisco's defensive linemen with seven sacks and 39 hurries.
Jerod-Eddie played just 10 snaps in 2012 after spending most of the year on the practice squad after joining the team as an undrafted free agent that spring. But in 2013, the Texas A&M alum played 446 snaps and had a breakout performance Week 5 against the Texans when he made his first-career interception with 25 seconds left in the third quarter after McDonald had left the game with a biceps injury. Jerod-Eddie finished the season with 23 tackles and eight assists.
Dobbs was suspended for the first game of the year after violating the league's substance abuse policy. He also saw his snap count rise dramatically (336 in 2013, 44 the previous season), but it as the year wore on it became clear Jerod-Eddie had passed him on the depth chart.
Rookies Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine both started the season on the Reserve/Non-football injury list and missed the first six games. Carradine never fully recovered from his knee injured suffered at Florida State and went on to have offseason surgery to remove scar tissue allowing for more flexibility. Dial appeared in just three games (19 snaps) after missing training camp while recovering from toe surgery, also stemming from an injury suffered in college.
Storylines to Watch
WILL TANK CONTRIBUTE?: Carradine didn't play a snap and practiced sparingly after being taken in the second round last year. Before his ACL tear he was viewed by many as a first-round talent as a natural 4-3 defensive end. Playing in a 3-4 will be an adjustment, but he appears to healthy for the first time as a pro and has put on 20 pounds of muscle necessary to take on blocks and clear space for linebackers. Carradine's role will be interesting to watch given his background as a pass rusher. His skill set could allow him to line up on the end of the line in passing situations while the 49ers usually have their defensive ends line up inside. Regardless of how he's used, the 49ers figure to have some serious depth along the defensive front with his addition.
WILLIAMS' RECOVERY: It took four surgeries to repair William's broken fibula suffered last September in Seattle. He said during minicamp his goal was to be back on the practice field at the start of training camp but he doesn't want to rush back. His last surgery was in February. With Dial healthy and Dorsey expected to remain the starter, the 49ers aren't inclined to throw Williams back out there before he's ready. Entering his fourth year as a pro, Williams has never appeared in more than three games in a season. However, it said a lot about his standing with the team last summer when he was named the starter coming out of training camp following his two-year contract extension he signed the previous spring.
DIAL-ING IT UP: The 49ers like Dial's versatility to play both nose tackle and defensive end. He was a virtual non-factor on the field in his rookie season in 2013, but he's as strong as any player in the group and was awfully tough against the run at Alabama. With Tomsula expected to continue rotating players in and out of the lineup, Dial could become a valuable contributor along the defensive front. The upside is there, but will need a strong camp to usurp some of the players ahead of him for playing time.
CAN OKOYE MAKE THE PRACTICE SQUAD?: Few players have accomplished less and received more attention from fans than the former Olympian. This time last year the 49ers wanted Okoye to transform from a rugby standout and discus thrower to a "bad football player." He wound going on injured reserve with a knee injury that kept him out for the entire season. There's little doubt Okoye has incredible physical skills - including remarkable speed for a 304-pounder - but can he develop enough to warrant a spot on the practice squad to continue his development?
LOCKS: Barring anything unforeseen, Smith, McDonald and Dorsey will start and should see very limited action in training camp as the team will look to keep them fresh for the coming season. Doing so will allow for some heated battles for playing time and roster spots behind them. Carradine is also assured a roster spot after the team invested a second-round pick in him in 2013.
NOTHING'S ASSURED BUT LOOKING GOOD: Dial, Jerod-Eddie. The 49ers broke camp with six defensive linemen on the 53-man roster. These three are the favorites to back up the incumbent starters, but Williams and Dobbs will give these guys all they can handle in training camp.
ON THE BUBBLE: Williams, Dobbs, Okoye, Purcell, Ramsey. The 49ers will be forced to part ways with a number of good players in training camp. Williams and Dobbs qualify for this distinction and wouldn't have any problem landing jobs elsewhere should they find themselves on the wrong side of the numbers game in San Francisco. Okoye, Purcell and Ramsey will likely battle for spots on the practice squad, but will have to clear waivers first.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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