Why the San Francisco 49ers Should Add Defensive Line Depth in the NFL Draft

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Why the San Francisco 49ers Should Add Defensive Line Depth in the NFL Draft
John Cordes/Associated Press

The San Francisco 49ers have a variety of needs heading into the 2014 NFL draft.

Cornerback Tarell Brown and safety Donte Whitner are both scheduled to become free agents on Tuesday and could leave the 49ers with significant holes to fill in the secondary.

San Francisco did improve its situation at wide receiver by re-signing veteran Anquan Boldin to a two-year contract extension; however, the general consensus seems to be that the 49ers still require some speed at the position.

But despite its apparent needs in those areas, a number of draft experts have San Francisco selecting a defensive lineman with the 30th pick.

ESPN.com's Todd McShay (subscription required) recently tipped the 49ers to take Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III (h/t SB Nation's David Fucillo).

Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com also has Nix heading to the Bay, while SB Nation's Matthew Fairburn feels the 49ers could select Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.

The draft is deep at the receiver and cornerback positions, but although the Niners have requirements at both those spots, there are plenty of reasons why San Francisco should look to address the depth on its defensive line.

 

Ageing starters

Ever since his arrival in 2008, Justin Smith has been the heart of the defensive line and a key component of an excellent 49ers defense.

However, at 34 years of age, Smith is likely approaching the twilight of his NFL career, although he hardly showed any signs of slowing down in the previous campaign despite his advancing years. 

Indeed, Smith was still able to rack up 40 solo tackles, 6.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 2013, impressive numbers considering the struggles the 49ers endured in rushing the passer last season.

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Smith has a contract with San Francisco until the end of the 2015 season, but after tearing his triceps muscle in 2012, one could be forgiven for questioning how long the 12-year veteran can continue to play at the same level.

Ray McDonald has proved to be a solid performer alongside Smith. However, his longevity may also be considered questionable.

McDonald is due to turn 30 just a few days before the start of the regular season and suffered a biceps tear this past season, although he only missed two games.

Smith and McDonald remain quality starters on the D-line who should be able to contribute in a big way in the coming years.

But rotation is a key part of the NFL, and the added presence of a talented rookie could help the likes of Smith and McDonald maximize their impact in 2014.

 

Injuries

Two of San Francisco's starters on the D-line may be in the latter part of their NFL careers, but the 49ers do have a pair of promising players who appear set to be heavily involved next season.

Ian Williams was named as the 49ers' starting nose tackle last season, but he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the Week 2 defeat at the Seattle Seahawks.

Meanwhile, 2013 second-round pick Tank Carradine missed the entirety of his rookie campaign because of a torn ACL sustained in his final year with Florida State.

Jim Harbaugh revealed at the NFL Scouting Combine that Carradine underwent another knee surgery to clear out some scar tissue.

In a recent interview with 95.7 The GameCarradine said he now feels 100 percent:

I'm over the injury. when the injury happened, it's been over a year and four months since the injury. Recently I had another surgery where they scoped my knee. Took some scar tissue and fluid, but I always felt I was ready and healed. But there was a little scar tissue that they took out, which makes me feel 100 percent now. I'm good to go, ready to go, and it feels like I haven't been hurt before.

Carradine will undoubtedly be given the chance to prove his worth, while Williams is likely to have to compete with Glenn Dorsey, the man who replaced him at nose tackle following the devastating injury against Seattle, for the starting nose tackle job.

Yet, Carradine remains an unknown quantity at the NFL level, while Williams is still relatively untested as a starter.

And with questions over how that pair will perform in 2014, it would make sense for the 49ers to bring in some insurance.

 

A lack of quality depth

It seems plausible to suggest that both Williams and Carradine will play a role in San Francisco's fortunes in 2014.

However, below that duo, the 49ers do not possess much in terms of depth on the defensive line.

Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs gained a substantial amount of playing time in the absence of Williams and performed admirably in rotation.

John Bazemore/Associated Press/Associated Press
Tony Jerod-Eddie enjoyed a promising 2013 season

Jerod-Eddie was particularly impressive in his performances, totaling 24 solo tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery.

Still, it is debatable whether Jerod-Eddie will be able to play to the same standard in 2014, while Dobbs may not even make the team.

CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco reported on Friday that the 49ers had tendered restricted free agent Dobbs but hinted that he could face a fight for a roster spot despite his significant involvement last season.

Quinton Dial, a fifth-round draft choice in 2013, may take Dobbs' place, although he is another player who has yet to demonstrate his value following a rookie season that was also disrupted by injury.

The San Francisco D-line is one of the better units in the NFL and could well improve if Williams and Carradine live up to their potential.

But the 49ers are a team that has consistently built for the future, and it would be no surprise if they did opt to replenish their resources on the defensive side of the trenches.

Note: Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

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