If the San Francisco 49ers sincerely believe in the spirit of competition and the idea that the best player will play, then it's time to discuss whether or not Cornellius “Tank” Carradine should start at left defensive end in 2014.
The 49ers will be weighing the positives and negatives of starting an unknown with All-Pro talent versus a safe, stable option. Being unadventurous, there’s an idea of which direction they will veer when it comes time to make a decision. But this is still a conversation worth having.
Let’s take a look at the offseason predicament in front of coach Jim Harbaugh and the defensive staff, which should heat up in this year’s training camp.
Who is Tank Carradine?
An ACL tear in his final year at Florida State cloaked his entry to the NFL, but Carradine is a stellar athlete with untapped potential at an evolving defensive position (3-4 end). He was unequivocally pegged as a first-round prospect—several said top-five overall—but Carradine fell all the way to Round 2 before he was scooped up by the 49ers at No. 40.
His claim to fame was his presence around the football and prowess as a natural pass-rusher (arguably the best in the nation).
As a 4-3 end in college, he recorded 42.5 sacks at Kansas’ Butler Community (JUCO) and went on to add 16.5 more sacks once transferring to FSU. Carradine tallied 11.0 of those sacks as a senior and led the Noles in tackles with 80—as a defensive lineman, mind you, not a linebacker.
Transitioning to a 3-4 end—a position that demands holding the point and rushing the passer—Carradine has the power and dexterity to be problematic for offensive tackles.
“The one thing I’ve always loved about Carradine’s game is his repertoire of pass-rush moves,” said NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland.
“He can either beat you around the corner with his speed by sinking his hips and shoulders, or he can push you back into the quarterback with a powerful bull rush.”
You’ve got to be physically gifted to do those things. And from a metric standpoint, this is a player who tests off the charts, possessing measurables that rival the likes of Houston Texans 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, back when he was coming out of Wisconsin.
In fact, if you compare Carradine’s predraft measurables to two of the best 3-4 ends in the NFL, you’ll see he is bigger and stronger than Justin Smith was and a whole 10th of a second faster than Watt. At 6’4”, (formerly) 273 pounds, he ran a 4.75 flat and threw up 32 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
He’s a superior athlete—one who is just genetically freakish. But he’s also a grinder, having worked his way up from junior college.
This is the official scouting report from Dane Brugler of CBS Sports from 2013, which, all kidding aside, reads like a coach’s dream. Carradine is the perfect pass-rusher but uniquely built to fit a 3-4-end role with the versatility to kick out wide still. He brings brute strength, speed, natural quickness and a high motor:
- 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
The scary part, and Brugler chalked it down as a negative (but it actually might be a positive), is that Carradine is still developing his pass-rush moves. Learning from All-Pros in Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, as well as coach Jim Tomsula, he may become an absolute freak on a down-to-down basis.
Carradine has rehabbed his knee in Houston, Texas, with Russ Paine, who worked with Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. After most thought the All-Pro running back would never be the same, he shocked the world with a career-best season, rushing for 2,097 yards (eight yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record).
So an ACL isn’t condemning his future. The procedure is becoming more routine with amazing advancements in medicine.
However, Carradine did have a setback with his injury, having been diagnosed with osteoarthritis (an abnormal growth of scar tissue in the knee). The way to remove it is surgically, which the 49ers and Carradine did have done. The prognosis is fairly good if it is caught early, and fortunately it has been.
Carradine spoke out to 95.7 The Game about his status following the second and final procedure to clean out his knee, via 49ers.com:
I’m over the injury. When I was out there running, it didn’t feel like my other knee. But once they went in there and took out the scar tissue, both my knees felt the same. I’m good to go, ready to go. It felt like I’d never been hurt before.
He went on to say the knee feels as good as new, and pending unforeseen circumstances, it’s all about football from here on out.
Forty-niners head coach Jim Harbaugh followed up on the matter at the NFL Scouting Combine (via Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com):
He looks like a different guy now, since that procedure. Just with what we saw when he did practice with our football team and now this procedure that's been done, I'm even more excited. I think he's going to have a great offseason and look forward to his progress very, very much. Expectations will be very high.
He’s been learning the playbook, the 5-technique and has added substantial weight to an already hulking frame. According to Carradine, he’s now up to 295 pounds, which is a whopping 17 pounds heavier than when he was drafted a year ago. To give you an idea of just how big that is for a 3-4 end, it’s a whole 10 pounds heavier than Justin Smith’s current playing weight.
And for those who have seen Carradine’s physique, it’s easy to believe that everything he’s added to his frame is good, clean weight.
Competition, Creating the Best Starting Lineup Possible and “The Window”
Back to our hypothesis: Should Carradine be vying to start in 2014?
This largely relates to the Seattle Seahawks winning a Super Bowl—having a fresh-legged, attacking defensive front in the process—and All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith entering the last year or two of his prolific NFL career. The pressure is on, the precedent is set and there is a shrinking window in place.
A defensive line goes a long way in winning a title, and the 49ers have an opportunity to have the best in 2014 if they take a gamble.
Now, Smith, the soon-to-be 35-year-old, is one of the best in the game at his position but is close to walking away for good. In the 2012 offseason, he spoke out about a window to win a championship, referencing the way the salary cap and free agency is set up and how this team won’t be stacked forever.
Smith then also spoke about his own personal window, which may put fans on edge, knowing he is the lifeblood of the defense:
“Let’s go … Let’s not wait,” Smith said.
This should resonate. The 49ers, which have been cruising, need to put their foot down on the accelerator.
Too often we’ve seen this team hold back because of philosophical reasons: namely the fact that it values steady long-term development over learning on the fly. The Seattle Seahawks, for instance, build for the long-term but have a lot of young contributors they throw into the fire.
It’s paid off, and a lot of stars have emerged in the process.
San Francisco would have to get out of its comfort zone to do this, but allowing for a legitimate open competition in training camp at left defensive end between Tank Carradine and Ray McDonald would be a heck of a statement. And it puts them in a position to have the best line unit possible.
Though a bit brash, it would still apply with the club’s "everybody competes" way of thinking.
And McDonald, for all his stability at the end spot, is unspectacular when it comes to playmaking. His one advantage over Carradine, aside from playing experience, is his ability to clog that edge, free up linebacker Ahmad Brooks and play the run with some consistency.
Now, Carradine plugging in over McDonald is risky. The 49ers don’t want to jeopardize the integrity of the line or disrupt the herd.
Tyson Langland paints a good picture of how the team might view it, saying, “Carradine is set to be a hell of a player in the NFL. However, McDonald is still playing at a high level. He’s a disruptive run defender who can rush the passer sparingly at 29 years of age.”
This is exactly right and most likely how the club sees it, even if Carradine is the better player right now (which by all means, he is from a talent perspective).
But let’s play devil’s advocate. The 49ers have seen McDonald leave the lineup with injury, particularly in 2013. They started undrafted free-agent Tony Jerod-Eddie and didn’t miss a beat. So this isn’t as risky as some may think, and Coach Tomsula has a great deal to do with it.
If there is any position where this team has leeway to take risks, it’s on the defensive line.
Now, after speaking with Langland about the open competition and how the 49ers could justify it, he came to this conclusion:
An open competition between Carradine and McDonald does make sense. Competitions often show coaches more than performance. It shows them a player’s drive, will and mental toughness.
Think about it: McDonald has never had true competition at his spot and may react poorly from a mental standpoint if Carradine performs well. If that ends up being the case, it may tell the team all it needs to know about McDonald.
That’s another strong point here.
McDonald has never had competition in his three years as a starter. He was handed the position in 2011 under the new regime. Now, players like outside linebacker Parys Haralson, guard Adam Snyder and running back Anthony Dixon were pushed by drafted players and lost for the betterment of the team.
Aldon Smith, Alex Boone and Kendall Hunter all rose to the occasion and made this a better group.
What have the 49ers got to lose? They want—no—they need to have the best lineup possible.
Carradine gives the 49ers another cannonball that offenses have to account for, which means creating more opportunities for Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith. The interior defensive lineman may even have more chances to penetrate with guards diverting their attention to the edges.
How do you account for Justin Smith and Tank Carradine on every play?
In this scenario, the 49ers would just have too many players who would demand double-teams, and the numbers won’t add up for offensive linemen.
With Smith, Smith and Carradine demanding two blockers apiece, somebody is bound to get free. Leaving tight ends and running backs in to chip these guys would also be an exercise in futility as well as limiting pass-catching options for the offense in the process. It’s about further weaponizing the defensive front.
This will also make up for not having NaVorro Bowman (ACL) in 2014, who pass-rushed for this defense on occasion from the inside linebacker spot.
The Final Thought
In all likelihood, Ray McDonald will retain his starting position in 2014 whether he is the best player or not. From the staff’s vantage point, it’s the safest thing to do, and that’s how they’ll play it, no doubt. Tank Carradine will wind up being a mere spot player with limited reps.
Tyson Langland agrees, saying, “[Carradine] may have the talent to crack the starting lineup, but he’s not quite there yet. Odds are he plays 35-to-40 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2014.” I agree with this assessment, even though the argument posed favors a fair competition for Carradine.
The fear is: Is that the right way to go?
Every time Carradine is not in, that’s a potential sack, tackle for loss, forced fumble or some sort of big play the Niners are leaving on the bench. In McDonald’s last full season in 2012, where he had a full slate of 16 starts, he only had 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble (28 tackles). He’s only averaged 3.8 sacks per year in three seasons as a starter.
That’s not irreplaceable production.
For the 49ers, who approach things quite conservatively, they need to look at the motto of the Seattle Seahawks, who proceed with the thought process of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” If Tank Carradine can ramp up this defense for all the reasons mentioned, this is a move they should seriously consider.