Nose Tackle Is Quickly Becoming a Position of Desperate Need for the 49ers

Tyson LanglandNFC West Lead WriterFebruary 22, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 7:  Defensive tackle Justin Smith #94, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga #90, and defensive tackle Ray McDonald #91 of the San Francisco 49ers approach the line of scrimmage against the Buffalo Bills on October 7, 2012 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  The 49ers won 45-3.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Just 10 days ago, I was all but certain that Isaac Sopoaga's tenure with the San Francisco 49ers was coming to a close based on a number of factors. Decreased production, being on the wrong side of 30 and money were all working against the 330-pound nose tackle.

With his departure, it seemed like the most logical next step would be to re-sign Ricky Jean Francois and implement him as the starter at the nose. However, that doesn't seem to be the case, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.

Here's what Barrows had to say in his latest column:

Both of the team's nose tackles, Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois, are pending free agents. Jean Francois, who is five years younger, is more likely to hit the open market and sign elsewhere. Look for the team to strike a reasonable deal with Sopoaga, whose play improved at the end of the season.

I can't disagree with the sentiment that Sopoaga's play improved towards the end of the season, but what is considered a reasonable deal? His decline from 2011 to 2012 was rapid to say the least. At this point, based on his production and playing time, the most he's worth is the league minimum ($825,000) for a nine-year pro.

Would Sopoaga re-sign for the league minimum? Doubtful based on his pay from 2012. Yet it doesn't hurt to start low and slowly work your way up the pay scale. Another scenario that I could see the 49ers pulling the trigger on is a higher dollar, non-guaranteed deal.

Giving Sopoaga a one-year, $2 million deal that isn't guaranteed allows for flexibility. Veteran minimum deals are often fully guaranteed, which leaves little wiggle room when it comes to cap space and the 53-man roster. San Francisco isn't exactly in the greatest cap situation right now, so they need all the room they can get.

But back to my point about the one-year, $2 million deal.

If the organization were to structure the deal in such a way, it would allow them to adjust their view on Sopoaga. General manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh will most likely be focusing on the defensive line early and often at this year's NFL Draft.

Names like Jesse Williams and Johnathan Hankins may be there for the taking at No. 31, which would mean San Francisco has its new nose tackle of the future. This is where the handy-dandy non-guaranteed deal comes into play because based on the rookie learning curve of either Williams or Hankins, it gives San Francisco an option on Sopoaga.

If the organization felt as if the rookie nose tackle was catching on quickly, they could let Sopoaga go without any repercussions. Yet if they felt he wasn't catching on quick enough, they could keep No. 90 as an insurance policy. Ultimately it would cost more money, but at that point money wouldn't be the main focus, performance would. 

As far as Jean Francois goes, things aren't quite as cut-and-dry. Over the course of his four-year career he has always been a rotational player. The most snaps he has ever played in one season is 328. That career high snap count came this past season, coincidentally enough also signaling his most productive season as a pro.

By season's end he finished with two quarterback sacks and two quarterback hurries as a pass-rusher. Although, everyone knows that a nose tackle in Vic Fangio's defense isn't asked to rush the passer. Their sole purpose is to anchor the defensive line by eating up blockers and keeping offensive linemen off of San Francisco's All-Pro linebackers.

Jean Francois' most impressive stat of the 2012 season was the 16 defensive stops he recorded in the run game, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Justin Smith and Ray McDonald had more than 16 stops on the defensive line. Sopoaga ended up with the same number of stops, but it took him 70 more snaps against the run to do so.

Which is one of the reasons as to why I think the 49ers would be wise to re-sign Jean Francois over Sopoaga. He was simply more productive on a fewer number of snaps. Not to mention he's younger and has a higher ceiling at this point.

However, expect him to test free-agent waters as mentioned by Barrows. By visiting other teams, he and his agent will get a better gauge of his perceived worth, and the Niners will have a better idea if they will be able to re-sign him.

As free agency and the NFL draft inches closer, it's safe to say nose tackle will be San Francisco's biggest positional need during the offseason.

Drop a line below and tell me what you think the Niners should do. Do they re-sign Sopoaga? Or do they re-sign Jean Francois?