There have been a lot of theories as to what the defensive line will look like for the 2015 San Francisco 49ers. The bad news is, many in the media are pessimistic due to the losses on a very steady unit from the past four seasons.
Justin Smith retired after his left shoulder, which gets the brunt of the contact playing on the right side of the line, “didn’t respond” the way he wanted it.
Ray McDonald was released and is now likely out of the league.
The good news is, there is a very deep group of promising young players poised to step in and make their mark.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has suggested that Glenn Dorsey will take over for Justin Smith on the right side on base downs and will be replaced by Tank Carradine on nickel downs. He also believes Quinton Dial will start on the left side and standout nose tackle Ian Williams will resume his starting role in the middle.
This is a very plausible theory as Dorsey is very versatile and can play both end and tackle. Dial has good size and seems to be a good fit on the left side on base downs, especially against the run.
So where do the rest of the guys fit in and do any of them have a legitimate shot to start?
I agree with Barrows. Dorsey is the logical choice to start on the right side at this point. He played very well in 2013, but tore his biceps last summer. He is on track to have a big impact in 2015 and due to his good size, he should be very effective on the right side, while also being the primary backup to Ian Williams.
The big unknown is how good Tank Carradine will be. He seems like he’s ready to be a good pass rusher and spelling Dorsey in nickel situations is likely the best option for him.
Ian Williams is the best choice to start at nose tackle. He’s big, very stout against the run, and best suited for the middle. Given Dorsey’s versatility, Williams should start over center.
The left side does appear to be wide open. Quinton Dial, rookie Arik Armstead, Tony Jerod-Eddie, and possibly Mike Purcell will compete in training camp for at best, the starting left end spot on base downs.
The X-factor on the left side is Darnell Dockett, who is recovering from an ACL injury from last summer. All signs point to him playing in Week 1 off the bench in nickel situations, as he is the best pass-rushing end on the team. However, if Dockett is a full-go in camp, he could end up starting and playing the bulk of the downs on the left side. He is a very fiery guy and will add a lot to this group. The camp battle to watch is the left side, notably between Dockett and Dial.
The backup roles will be filled by a few in the group consisting of Lawrence Okoye (who will likely be stashed again on the practice squad), Jerod-Eddie, Armstead, Purcell, Kaleb Ramsey, and Garrison Smith.
This group should be better than most pundits are expecting, but the low expectations across the country are largely because many of these guys haven’t played much.
The keys will be the health of Dockett and the progress made by Carradine. If they are where Tomsula is expecting them to be, expect Dockett to be playing the bulk of the downs on the left side and Carradine pass rushing on the right side on nickel downs, giving the 49ers a very effective defensive line in 2015.