Tuesday, October 29. The San Francisco 49ers activated the No. 40 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, defensive lineman Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, per the team’s official website. That will be remembered as the day that forever changed this 49ers defense.
“What is the significance of this move,” you might ask. “He is just a rookie.”
Well, the Florida State defensive end was no slouch in college, proving himself to be one of the more imposing players in the NCAA on a down-by-down basis during his two-year stint. He was a high-motor player with all the eye-popping physical tools to be great at the next level.
A 4-3 pass-rusher for the ’Noles, he earned high praise coming out, as Bleacher Report’s own draft guru, Matt Miller, confidently locked Carradine in as his No. 5 overall player in the 2013 class. And it wasn’t exclusive to one scout, either. There was unanimous admiration from the draft community.
Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network:
Matthew Fairburn, Draft Editor at SB Nation:
Ryan Lownes of Draft Breakdown and Bleacher Report:
Joe Bussell, former NFL employee of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Dane Brugler of CBS Sports:
These rave reviews are just the stamp of approval when it comes to Carradine’s physical prowess (6’4”, 273 lbs, running a 4.75 40-time, per Cecil Lammey of ESPN Denver), which tends to be the first thing people look at. A lot of players come out of the draft, and they’re freakish, but can they play the game?
Honestly, Tank Carradine is not only supremely gifted from a physical standpoint, but he looks as natural as any playing the game. The scouts above can vouch for this.
And what we know about pass-rushers—if you look at studs like Von Miller, Aldon Smith or Bruce Irvin—is that it is a trait in players that tends to show up right away. They’ve got moves and ability to beat offensive linemen regularly and not much changes when they get to the pros.
If anything, they get better because the coaching in the NFL is as good as it gets and they’re able to sharpen their technique. So Carradine’s impact could be soon.
Moreover, what you need to know about the 49ers is that their focus isn’t relegated to each week; they play the entire season like a hand of poker. Bringing in Carradine and stashing him was no accident. This is a very methodical organization that plans for the short and long term—that is what allowed the 49ers to sneak up on teams with the read-option last year.
But this season, instead of springing an offensive wrinkle on teams, San Francisco will add one of the most revered defensive talents in the 2013 draft to a squad that is already loaded top to bottom. This 49ers defense is one of the very best in the league again, so adding an able body like Tank Carradine may launch it to a plateau it hasn't experienced before.
We’re in an era of football where the advancement on the offensive side of the football has been more prevalent than anything. Between the light-footed space receivers and the big-bodied rebounders at the tight end position, it is all about mismatches and defeating teams by having unique athleticism at unsuspecting positions.
Less defense, more offense: That’s what teams want.
However, flipping it to the other side of the ball, defenses are finding new ways to attack these high-powered offenses, and it starts up front in the trenches. Defensive coordinators want to cut the play off at the head. In doing so, they’ve really begun to capitalize on human evolution and the recent craze of the athletic big man.
Defensive tackle is becoming more of a playmaking position with how athletic and coachable players are coming out of college. 4-3 interior linemen like Ndamukong Suh and Geno Atkins are problematic for those reasons. They immediately changed the way their teams played defense and how offenses prepare for them.
From 2011 till now, in particular, it has become apparent that the 3-4 end position has also been weaponized (this is where Carradine comes in).
What He Is...
Cornellius Carradine: Stats (2009-12)
2012: 11 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)
When Carradine was drafted, he showed up listed on the team’s roster as a defensive tackle. This surprised some who watched him play 4-3 defensive end for the Seminoles and thought he might make the transition to outside linebacker. But no, the organization has different plans in mind for Carradine.
It’s thinking outside the box.
At the post-draft presser, general manager Trent Baalke compared him to the team’s starting left defensive tackle, Ray McDonald, saying how Carradine can make the transition to 3-4 end, via 49ers.com:
We think he has the frame to do that. Ray [McDonald] 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.
This is scary for NFL teams around the league because the Niners are essentially taking a high draft talent and working to integrate a hybrid in their defense—another pure pass-rusher they can move around and create matchup problems with.
And learning from Justin Smith and Jim Tomsula—and considering the batting average of this front office, which gets sacks and interceptions from its third-string defensive tackles—Carradine has a chance to become truly great.
If he evolves accordingly, he has a ceiling to become one of the better 3-4 ends.
Two of the premier examples in the league today are Houston Texans defensive tackle J.J. Watt and San Francisco’s own Justin Smith—perfect illustrations of genetic mutation along the defensive line. Both are bigger, quicker and stronger than they rightfully should be, and it makes them dominant on Sundays.
They bull rush, absorb protection and make a habit out of destroying quarterbacks and running backs, which don’t even look like they should be in the same sport as them, let alone the same stadium or field. It’s constant manhandling.
So, when you peg Carradine as an edge-rusher, he is not like Cliff Avril, Jared Allen or even Justin Tuck. No, he is quantified as something else altogether. He goes in a select group with Watt and Smith, largely because he’ll be able to do all those things with how he is built.
Like Watt and Smith, Carradine was a superior athlete coming out of the draft. There are also some very real comparisons to be made if you account for him growing into his body after his rookie year in the NFL. Let’s take a look at all of their predraft measurables:
|J.J. Watt||6'5"||290 lbs||4.84 sec||37"||34 reps|
|Tank Carradine||6'4"||276 lbs||4.75 sec||N/A||32 reps|
|Justin Smith||6'4"||267 lbs||4.64 sec||34"||26 reps|
|NFL Draft Scout|
Reflecting on their predraft numbers, Carradine is bigger and stronger than Smith was coming in and nearly a whole tenth of a second faster than Watt, who kills teams with that combo of size and speed. That being the case, it is clear that the 49ers are trying to build a bully at 3-4 end.
Like Baalke said, he can still grow to be roughly 285 pounds, like Justin Smith, and retain 90 or so percent of that amazing initial burst and closing speed.
He can be the next freak in the league.
Where He Can Help…
Easing back into football, Carradine is looking to work into a situational role at first, also seeing as how he is in a new system and playing level. However, there will be plenty of opportunities for him to get involved with how dinged up the 49ers defensive line is.
Remember, the Niners lost starting nose tackle Ian Williams in the Week 2 contest versus the Seattle Seahawks with a broken ankle. He was replaced by second-stringer Glenn Dorsey, who is not 100 percent, as he is dealing with a hamstring injury. Then there is starting end Ray McDonald, who is playing through a partially torn biceps.
This has had third-stringers Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs rotating in the lineup and taking over completely in the fourth quarter when the Niners are ahead.
So, in base situations when one of the starters needs a breather, Carradine could become the next man in. He is too talented not to play, and you’d have to think that Jim Harbaugh, a soup to nuts football guy, is champing at the bit to see him in action.
Also, if he is to contribute in the playoffs, the coaches are almost obligated to take advantage of these last eight games, so they can be fair to Carradine by allowing the rookie to find himself out there. So it makes sense to get him chances in the base. This will make the Niners more dangerous as well, because it provides a pass-rush element.
And if there is anything this defense needs right now, it’s that.
Top-10 defense aside, the 49ers are currently ranked No. 22 in sacks (17).
When it comes to time on the field, they have a lowly sack rate of 5.54 percent, which is the eighth-worst in the league, per NFL Team Rankings. To show why San Francisco needs to improve here, look no further than the 17-35 record that the seven worse teams in front of them have.
Meanwhile, the top-five most efficient sacking teams have a combined record of 29-8.
San Francisco has to get better in this area. Carradine’s entry to the lineup allows the 49ers a real opportunity to, especially in their most commonly used defensive formation, the nickel. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio dials up this look quite a bit.
In fact, in 2012, it was used a little over 60 percent of the time, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. The upside to this is that this is Carradine’s bread and butter—it’s a four-man line, which is what he played in at Florida State. There is no adjustment necessary on his part here.
So whenever the 49ers call this grouping, Carradine should kick out to that end spot, while Justin Smith and Ray McDonald move inside. This will allow Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier or Aldon Smith at the other end spot, and then it’s like, “Who do you block?”
Wearing No. 95, Carradine is going to have his chances to get free because of the defensive scheme in San Francisco, as well as the immense talent around him. The Niners can just pop him in the lineup, and he’ll be engulfed in All-Pros. It looks to be a perfect marriage for that reason. They have talent already, and he has a specialty that fills a need and completes the defense.
The 49ers desperately need more sacks and pressures, and Carradine can provide them with that.
And at the end of the day, it’s just one more player offenses are going to have to account for.
Defensive players like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Justin Smith would be enough for most teams to have a competitive unit on Sunday, but the 49ers have so much more than that. Guys like Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald are overshadowed but manage to play stingy football, like the rest of the stars in this defense.
Together, it is a very strong foundation.
And every year, it seems the rich get richer.
In 2013, there have been surprise contributions from rookie free safety Eric Reid and newly instated nickel cornerback Tramaine Brock—two fresh new role players who are tied for the team lead in interceptions. Rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier is also looking like another able pass-rush specialist for San Francisco.
But you have to hand it to the front office.
General manager Trent Baalke and national scout Matt Malaspina do a fine job scouting defensive talent, especially from the Southeast region of the United States. They rarely miss when it comes to that side of the ball.
On top of which, these coaches are able to optimize the talent from each player they get their hands on.
In this case, Carradine will be partnered up with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who could have his best project yet. This could be as fruitful a partnership as Rocky and Mickey.
After being connected to defensive linemen like Datone Jones (UCLA), Margus Hunt (SMU) and Jesse Williams (Alabama) in the draft, the 49ers may have hit a slam dunk with Tank Carradine. His potential far exceeds anyone else they could’ve taken.
It was a great value pick, and even better, he is a freaky athlete who fits this scheme to a T for the short and long term, as far as how his body grows.
The 49ers are likely to discover that waiting out his rehabilitation was definitely worth it. With a record of 6-2, the team can expect Cornellius Carradine to provide incredible depth for the No. 9 overall defense, while bringing this pass rush up to warp speed.