Oliver was the surprise of 2006 rookie class
The 49ers got some bad news Wednesday when tests revealed that Melvin Oliver, the promising young defensive end who was injured in Tuesday's session of organized team activities, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that likely will keep him out for the upcoming season.
Oliver, the third of San Francisco's three sixth-round draft choices in 2006, was one of the team's biggest surprises last season, when he emerged during training camp as one of San Francisco's top front-seven defenders and forged his way into the starting lineup by the season opener.
The 49ers even revised their initial plans to play a base 3-4 defense because Oliver gave them a better presence along the front line at stopping the run. He made 14 starts as a rookie, most of them at right defensive end, and finished with 50 tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery.
Oliver became the first rookie defensive lineman in the 49ers' 61-year history to score a touchdown when he returned that fumble recovery for a score during San Francisco's 34-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders in October.
Despite his fine play as a rookie, Oliver was going to face much stiffer competition just to get on the field during the upcoming season as a result of San Francisco's offseason upgrades and the team's commitment to a true 3-4 base scheme this year.
He was currently lining up on the left side behind Bryant Young, but was something of an odd man out in the new scheme, since the team is looking to get bigger along its front interior and Oliver is more of a true 4-3 end at 280 pounds.
The loss of Oliver is somewhat assuaged by the fact the 49ers have much better depth along the defensive line now than they have had in several years. Ronald Fields and Marques Douglas are vying for the starting role at right end, and rookies Ray McDonald and Joe Cohen also are in the mix at end, though Cohen is more likely to play on the nose.
Undrafted rookie free agents Darius Sanders and Zach Anderson also will get a look at end this summer, and while they're still long shots to make the roster, a spot on that roster has been opened by the misfortune of Oliver, who faces surgery and a lengthy recovery from one of the worst of ligament tears.
Newcomer Sam Rayburn, who agreed to a one-year contract with the team Tuesday, also can fill in at that position, and John Syptak has been playing well at defensive end in NFL Europe.