In 2012, the San Francisco 49ers had six starting defensive players receive Pro Bowl honors, which was a league-high.
It is one of the most skilled units in the NFL, stacked from top to bottom, yet that is where the team’s draft focus was. In late April, the 49ers brought in high-caliber defenders early and often.
In fact, with their first two picks in 2013, the Niners acquired a pair of first-round talents in Eric Reid (LSU) and Tank Carradine (Florida State).
Selected at No. 18 overall, Reid is the obvious favorite to supersede departed All-Pro Dashon Goldson at free safety. Between the void on the back end and San Francisco’s aggressive Day 1 trade, it shows Reid is their man.
However, Carradine comes in as a former DE/LB where there are four entrenched starters manning the edges—two of which are All-Pros. Also coming off a late-season ACL injury, the rookie defensive lineman might not be rushed into action.
While Carradine has a higher ceiling than Reid, it is the ex-Seminole that San Francisco is going to make a project player. After the draft, GM Trent Baalke announced that the second-rounder would make the transition to 3-4 end (h/t Santa Rosa Press Democrat):
Well, he’s going to play down. He’s not an outside linebacker. In our system, it’s one of the things we really liked is the versatility. He’s a little bit bigger than [DT] Ray [McDonald] was when Ray came out.
Just a guy that we think can play the four technique, the five technique, can play in our sub package. Can kick down and play a three and also stay outside in the sub package. So, just a lot of position versatility with him.
There is arguably no better defensive lineman than a healthy Justin Smith.
He does a lot of things very well for San Francisco, which is what makes him so valuable and difficult to replace. As an accomplished, multifaceted 3-4 end, Smith can both control the line of scrimmage and rush the passer.
When Smith arrived for the 2012 regular season, he was the undisputed No. 1 pass-rushing lineman, having accrued a league-high 187 total pressures from 2009 through 2011.
According to a recent study from the stat-crunchers at Pro Football Focus, Smith is the NFL’s top-ranked 3-4 defensive end when it comes to pass-rush productivity. Out of 1,592 pass-rush snaps in a three-year span, he had an efficiency rate of 9.16 percent.
Aside from getting after the passer, Smith also utilizes his broad frame and herculean strength to absorb blockers. This subsequently allows his teammates to break the pocket and make plays in the opponent’s backfield.
This self-sacrificing approach helped guide his running mate, LB Aldon Smith, to 19.5 sacks in his first year as a starter. It also makes the late green dog blitzes from NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis effective.
It's getting redundant to point out just how ridiculously dominant Justin Smith is, but he really is. #Awesome
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 26, 2012
Smith, 33, is now entering his 13th NFL season, and sooner rather than later, the tread will begin to wear.
The veteran lineman is also coming off a partially torn tricep that had to be surgically repaired (h/t Pro Football Talk). All things considered, if he were not part of a playoff team, the painful tear might have officially ended his season last year.
As of now, logic says the 49ers have two or three more seasons with Smith, and his contract says they have even less (via Spotrac).
The 49ers have to brace for Smith’s inevitable departure, which may call for a two-year plan that includes developing an understudy. Finding a long-term successor for San Francisco’s best defenseman will not be an overnight fix.
Heading into the 2013 draft, there was the understanding that the 49ers might engage the reconstruction of their defensive line.
It was a group that suffered a performance decline toward the back end of the season, handicapping them in the playoffs.
This was largely because of Justin Smith’s injury, once again demonstrating just how imperative his presence is to this defense. The lack of pass rush following the tricep tear set off all sorts of bells in the San Francisco front office.
The 49ers followed through on that by selecting three defensive players with their top four picks, trading up multiple times to secure their gold-star prospects.
While their picks were well received, they surprised many analysts that had been drawing up projections in the months leading up to the draft. Perhaps the three most popularly mocked players along the defensive line were Jesse Williams (Alabama), Margus Hunt (SMU) and Datone Jones (UCLA).
NTs are not viewed as hot commodities. Teams believe they can find those guys at any point in the draft.
— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) May 7, 2013
Originally regarded as a first-round prospect, Williams slipped to Round 5, where he was then selected by the Seattle Seahawks. This dramatic fall was one of the more notable head-scratchers in the 2013 draft.
The 49ers had several openings to snag Williams where it would have been considered a steal, but they consciously passed on the defensive tackle. As a simplistic run-stuffer, this was not the type of player the 49ers were looking for.
The Estonian-born Hunt was also not a logical fit in San Francisco.
The 6’8”, 277-pound lineman was linked to the 49ers time and time again, repeatedly mocked to them by NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. However, with his long, lean body and background as a sprinter, Hunt never struck me as a fit for the 3-technique.
During the pre-draft process, every nuance about Hunt screamed 4-3 defense, which is how it worked out when the Cincinnati Bengals selected him in Round 2. For the 49ers’ sake, and for Hunt’s sake, it is a good thing the team bypassed his selection.
On the other hand, Jones might have been a good fit, but another 3-4 team would scoop him up earlier than the 49ers were willing to take him. The Packers made the selection at No. 26 overall—eight draft slots after the Niners traded up for Eric Reid (LSU).
With the No. 40 overall pick in the draft, the 49ers selected Cornellius "Tank" Carradine of Florida State. In a roundabout way, San Francisco may have not only wound up with the best fit, but the top player of the aforementioned D-linemen.
Cornellius Carradine: Stats (2009-12)
2012: 12 games played, 80 tackles, 13 TFL, 11.0 sacks, 9 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble
2011: 13 games played, 38 tackles, 8 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry
2010: Played at Butler Community College (JUCO)
2009: Played at Butler Community College (JUCO)
As Trent Baalke stated, the 49ers like Tank Carradine’s versatility when it comes to playing different techniques on the line.
He can play all over their base and sub packages, which is a big return on their investment.
They also believe Carradine has untapped upside as an edge rusher, which is unique for a player with his dimensions.
From a physical standpoint, he has the foundation to emulate Justin Smith’s current playing size. The 49ers GM, and the organization as a whole, believe he can grow into the player that quintessentially fits their scheme (h/t 49ers.com):
We think he has the frame to do that. Ray was, like I said, Ray was a little shorter and a little lighter than Tank at the same stage coming out. And Ray carries 290 pretty easily and very comfortable at it. So, we definitely think there is room for growth.
So, while he has the essential build to be a prototypical 3-4 end, at his core, Carradine has a different positional background than Smith and McDonald. With his rare physical talents, he operated as a tweener DE/LB at Florida State.
In that role, Carradine fulfilled similar duties as San Francisco’s ends—setting the edge, stuffing the run and rushing the passer.
The 49ers are banking on that all-encompassing skill set translating to the next level; even at a different position. And once he has packed on the weight to play the 3-technique, underneath that build will lie the athleticism of a rush linebacker.
This will help him to become a multilayered weapon, similar to what the 49ers have in the 13-year pro, Smith.
But Carradine is superior athletically, already rivaling two of the top 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. As you can see in the following chart, his physical capacity is on par with All-Pros Justin Smith and J.J. Watt (h/t NFL.com and NFL Draft Scout):
|Watt||6'5" 290 lbs.||4.84 sec.||37"||34 reps|
|Carradine||6'4" 276 lbs.||4.75 sec.||N/A||32 reps|
|Smith||6'4" 267 lbs.||4.64 sec.||34"||26 reps|
Reflecting on their pre-draft measurables, Carradine is bigger and stronger than Smith was coming in and faster than Watt. This is a fine jumping-off point in San Francisco’s attempt to find a suitable successor to No. 94.
Carradine has the body for the end position, but also the extraordinary athleticism to be problematic like Watt, the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
With time, coaching and dedicated weight training, there is a chance he reaches the level of Smith and Watt. As a unanimous first-round talent, he has the ceiling to be as dominant a player as any in this league.
Even though he played only 25 games of Division I football, Carradine sure left his mark on the NCAA.
He received high remarks coming out, establishing himself as one of the most impressive pass-rushers in the 2013 draft.
Conversely, an ACL tear in late November would knock him out of what might’ve been top-10 consideration (h/t ESPN).
The scouting report on Carradine reads like a coach’s dream. Here are the bullet points, via Dane Brugler of CBS Sports:
- Good-looking athlete with agile feet and very good closing speed
- Natural bend and flexibility around the edge with smooth lateral quickness and redirection skills
- Quick in pursuit to force the issue and has the athleticism to recover from a false step
- Very good footwork to sidestep blockers to flatten and close on the pocket
- Shows fluid movements and short-area burst, but also rangy
- Active hands and limbs to swat and stay balanced through contact
- Reliable in the open field, using his length to wrap and discipline to not sell out
- Accurate recognition skills
- Improved hand use to rip and tear, keeping low pad level through the process
- Hungry player and his effort doesn't waver, going hard for all four quarters and rarely taking a play off
Fortunately for Carradine, the rehabilitation process has been going well. He may return to the elite form he played with prior to the fact. Now six months removed from the injury, he is looking to take his skills and harness them as a 3-4 end.
Not only are the 49ers looking for a successor to Smith, but they’re swinging for the fences with Tank Carradine. He has the build and aptitude to be a hybrid 3-4 end, while other incoming defensive line prospects lacked as many dimensions.
He can pass rush, occupy blockers and set a powerful, physical tone in the trenches.
From a talent perspective, Carradine can theoretically be as dominant as Justin Smith or J.J. Watt—the upside is there. And for this reason, the 49ers were stealing by making the selection in Round 2.
Moreover, the draft pick was very similar to the gamble on Aldon Smith in 2011. Like the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Year, Carradine is freakishly athletic. And like Smith (leg) was coming out of college, Carradine is coming off injury and very raw.
In fact, Smith played eight fewer games in the NCAA than Carradine.
But once again, the San Francisco front office sees immense upside at great value, and the Niners are willing to work with him. If he is moldable and position flexible like Aldon Smith or Bruce Miller were, the 49ers might have their defensive end of the future.
My ranking of Tank Carradine (DE-FSU) may surprise people, but once healthy I see a dominant pass rusher. He's top 5 for me.
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 5, 201-
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.