Tank Carradine essentially received a mulligan in 2013. The defensive end out of Florida State was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of last year’s NFL draft, but missed the entire season as he recovered from a torn ACL.
Due to his rehab, Carradine wasn’t able to participate much in last year’s offseason workouts, at least not physically. This offseason, however, he’ll be fully ready to go and battle for a regular role in the squad. The question remains, however—will Carradine live up to the hype and break into the starting lineup? If so, will this be the year?
First of all, it’s good to have a refresher course on just why Carradine was so highly coveted last year, even with the injury. There’s a reason why people are focusing on a player who didn’t see the field at all in 2013.
Carradine was tearing up his senior season at FSU, notching 11 sacks in 12 games—an impressive number for someone with a very small history at defensive end. Carradine was actually recruited as a safety, and worked his way up through linebacker to defensive end, adding muscle all the while.
He has a real explosive start and is able to get to the passer in no time at all by simply blowing past offensive tackles. He’s an extremely persistent rusher, hustling all the way out to the sideline to make stops. He’s disruptive with good closing speed and an ability to shed blocks to make the play.
The big knock against him is simply the lack of experience—his run defense needs work, as does his anticipation of the snap count. That’s to be expected from a player with only 11 starts in college to his resume. He’s got loads of potential and showed amazing ability, but he still just needs playing time.
The upshot of all of this is that, before his ACL injury, Carradine was projected as a first-round pick. If he’s fully recovered from his ACL injury, he’s a major steal for San Francisco, at least on paper.
Carradine’s stumbling block for contributing in 2014 isn’t his ability or experience. Yes, he may have some growing pains transition from FSU’s 4-3 defense to San Francisco’s preferred 3-4, but he’s versatile enough to play the five-technique. He’s also shown the work ethic needed to transition to new positions and new situations throughout his career, shifting from position to position and from a reserve role to a starting role over the course of his college career.
No, the main thing stopping him from being San Francisco’s next great starter is the quality of the two starters at defensive end in Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. Smith, of course, made the Pro Bowl and shows very few signs of slowing down, even at age 34. McDonald was one of the top run defenders on the team, giving him versatility in a role that Carradine’s not quite up to full speed on yet.
When it comes down to it, Carradine’s role is likely to mirror Aldon Smith’s role as a rookie. Remember, Smith only played 506 snaps his first season, or just slightly more than half of the team’s defensive plays. He didn’t start a single game—he was just rotated in as a pass-rushing specialist. He finished that year with 14 sacks anyway and impressed enough that he was given the starting role the next season.
If the 49ers take the same route with Carradine, that means he’s not competing with Smith or McDonald, but with Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs. The two each participated in about a third of the team’s defensive snaps last season, with somewhat mixed results.
Dobbs in particular seems unlikely to return to the team next season. He’s a restricted free agent, but why pay him over $1.3 million on the restricted tender when you have a player like Carradine ready to be plugged into the rotation? It’s a crowded situation as it is, so Carradine will likely at least bump up into Dobbs’ old slot.
That leaves Jerod-Eddie to beat out, and it’s not like Jerod-Eddie lit up the field this season. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave him a middling rating of -0.4. He did record 16 QB hurries, which places him sixth on the team, but he’s not someone who projects to be a starter long-term. He’s the kind of player you want for depth, not as an eventual replacement.
The team will most likely rotate Carradine and Jerod-Eddie into the lineup, giving Justin Smith and McDonald time to rest and recover more. It will also give Carradine time to adjust to the speed of the NFL game—you can study the playbook all you want, but there’s no substitute for in-game experience.
So, we get back to the initial question asked—can Tank Carradine be the next great starter on San Francisco’s defense? The short answer is yes, but not this season. Carradine simply doesn’t have enough experience at defensive end to replace anyone in the starting lineup this year—at least, not anyone playing as well as Smith or McDonald are.
Can he make a great impact on San Francisco’s defense? That’s a definite yes—we saw just a few years ago how a first-year pass-rusher can be dominant despite not starting. The Aldon Smith path is the way to go for Carradine.
He’s had a year to get familiar with the playbook and to work with the coaches, and now he’ll get the benefit of an entire offseason to work his way physically into the lineup.
I expect him to play somewhere approaching 50 percent of the team’s snaps this season, primarily in pass-rushing situations. I could see him flexed in for McDonald when the 49ers go to their nickel package, pinning his ears back and preparing to run through the quarterback. He’s definitely capable of providing a major impact in 2014.
He has the potential to do much more than that in the future—Justin Smith will, one day, fade from his current status. What 49ers fans should hope to see out of Carradine this season is steps towards being an all-around, every-down player. He doesn’t have to be that right away—the team has the luxury to bring him on slowly—but Carradine’s ceiling is a yearly Pro Bowler and staple as a five-technique defensive end.
It’s also important not to put too much pressure on him right off the bat—after all, this will essentially be his rookie season. Don’t expect him to be J.J. Watt or anyone right off the bat. I could see him approaching five or so sacks as he works his way into the lineup. The sky is the limit for Carradine, but expectations should be more realistic for 2014.