San Francisco 49ers NT Isaac Sopoaga Deserves a Bumper New Contract After 2012

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San Francisco 49ers NT Isaac Sopoaga Deserves a Bumper New Contract After 2012
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman get all the headlines, but Isaac Sopoaga is the cornerstone of the San Francisco 49ers defense. The veteran nose tackle deserves a lucrative new contract after his current deal expires at the end of the 2012 season.

The unheralded nine-year pro made the switch to nose tackle in 2011 and quickly became one of the league's best at the position. Moving Sopoaga over the center helped turn an already-talented defense into a truly formidable unit.

At 6'2", 330 pounds, Sopoaga has the powerful frame and natural leverage to occupy double-teams and push the pocket. With Sopoaga holding the middle, Justin Smith is allowed to spend more time rushing the passer than most 3-4 linemen enjoy.

Bowman and Willis both benefit from clear lanes of pursuit thanks to Sopoaga's ability to handle 2-gap responsibilities. He was the fulcrum of a run defense that went 14 games without yielding a touchdown in 2011.

There are more high-profile nose tackles in the NFC—Dallas Cowboys' playmaker Jay Ratliff and Green Bay Packers' youngster B.J. Raji—but none can match Sopoaga's ability to be a force in the middle.

Sopoaga turns 31 in September, but nose tackles tend to get better with age. New England Patriots' star Vince Wilfork and Pittsburgh Steelers' stalwart Casey Hampton are prime examples.

There is every reason to believe Sopoaga will do the same. He has improved each season since becoming a regular starter in 2008. The move to nose tackle is likely to add another couple of years to his career.

The New York Jets showed that age is no barrier in recognising the importance of a dominant nose tackle. They gave a three-year, $15 million deal to 33-year-old Sione Pouha.

Pure 2-gappers in the middle aren't easy to find at the pro level. If Sopoaga enjoys another stellar campaign this season, then he should be rewarded with a lucrative, long-term contract.

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