Breaking Down the San Francisco 49ers' Front 7 at the Start of Camp

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Breaking Down the San Francisco 49ers' Front 7 at the Start of Camp
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The front seven of the San Francisco 49ers figure to be an area of much change in the 2014-15 NFL season.

A lot has been made of the how the offseason additions will potentially affect other areas of the team such as the receiving core and the secondary.

That is unsurprising given the additions made to the 49ers' talented group of receivers and the overhaul that the back end of the defense has undergone in the offseason.

By contrast the front seven has not been the subject of as much talk, and that is probably somewhat unfair when you take into account the factors that could affect its performance in the coming campaign.

A number of new faces are set to come onto the scene and compete for roster spots and playing time.

In addition, the unit, which has been one of the toughest in the NFL, will be missing one key player for much of the year and may see another suspended by the league.

The issue of the how the front end of the 49ers' 3-4 defense is going to progress is one that deserves to be discussed in depth. 

Training camp is now underway, and here I break down the Niners' front seven as San Francisco begins its preparations for another tilt at the Super Bowl.

 

The additions

Heading into free agency and the draft, it was clear that the front seven was not seen as an area of priority for the 49ers, but it was one that they still chose to address.

In the later rounds of the draft, San Francisco opted to bolster its front seven.

Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Borland was taken with a third-round pick, outside linebacker Aaron Lynch was selected in the fifth round out of Florida Atlantic before Boston College defensive tackle Kaleb Ramsey arrived after the 49ers used their penultimate choice to add him to the ranks.

San Francisco also moved quickly to acquire one of the top undrafted players, inking Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov to a deal.

Prior to the draft, the Niners signed Demarcus Dobbs to a one-year tender to keep the lineman on the team, and more recently, Blake Costanzo returned to the Bay on a one-year deal and linebacker Chase Thomas was brought in on a two-year contract.

 

Depth Chart

So, with the acquisitions made during the offseason, how do the 49ers front seven shape up going into training camp?

To begin to answer that question, it is worth taking a look at a potential depth chart, put together by Pro Football Focus.

 

Defensive Line

49ers Defensive Line Depth Chart
Position Starter 2nd string 3rd string
LE Ray McDonald Tony Jerod-Eddie Kaleb Ramsey
NT Glenn Dorsey Ian Williams Quinton Dial
RE Justin Smith Demarcus Dobbs Tank Carradine

Pro Football Focus

 

Linebackers

49ers Linebackers Depth Chart
LOLB Ahmad Brooks Dan Skuta Aaron Lynch
LILB Patrick Willis Chris Borland Blake Costanzo
RILB NaVorro Bowman Michael Wilhoite Nick Moody
ROLB Aldon Smith Corey Lemonier

Pro Football Focus

The majority of the starters listed on those charts are difficult to dispute. However, there are a number of factors that will see the 49ers' front seven have a very different look to the one detailed by PFF come Week 1 of the regular season.

 

Injuries and Suspensions

One thing that PFF's depth chart does not take into account are the prospective absences of two key players that could leave the 49ers with big holes to fill in the front seven.

 

NaVorro Bowman

There is not one follower of the NFL that will not have seen NaVorro Bowman's gruesome torn ACL and MCL in last season's NFC Championship Game defeat to the Seattle Seahawks.

Bowman's injury ended the All-Pro inside linebacker's excellent 2013-14 campaign and was the low point of an enthralling encounter between two fierce division rivals.

The incident spawned a new rule on the ability to review fumble recoveries, but it could result in far greater ramifications for the 49ers in 2014.

Even though Bowman told ESPN that he is "ahead of schedule" in his rehabilitation from injury (h/t Kevin Lynch of The San Francisco Chronicle), it is unlikely that Bowman will return to action before the middle of the season.

The absence of a player of Bowman's calibre naturally figures to be a huge problem for San Francisco heading into the upcoming campaign.

Patrick Willis has been practicing in Bowman's "Mike" linebacker spot during the offseason.

However, a slight positional change for Willis—who normally operates in the "Jack" rolewould not fix the gaping hole left in what is effectively the heart and soul of the 49ers defense, meaning that an inexperienced player will have to step up and make giant strides if San Francisco is to offset the loss of Bowman.

 

Aldon Smith

The Aldon Smith saga looks to have finally reached a conclusion, and the 49ers should be relatively happy with the outcome.

Outside linebacker and pass-rush specialist Smith avoided jail after pleading "no contest" to three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon and two misdemeanor counts of DUI.

Smith was sentenced to 12 days in a county jail with a one-day credit, however, that sentence can be served on a work crew on Mondays from July 28.

It is a positive outcome for Smith and the 49ers, who said in a statement (via ESPN) that they would "support any action the NFL may take with respect to this matter."

A suspension from the league seems the probable outcome for Smith, likely forcing him to miss more time after he sat out five games last season to undergo rehab following his DUI.

Yet, given the light sentence, it is anticipated that the NFL will follow the judge's example of leniency toward Smith and opt for a shorter ban than was first thought.

Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier will be the leading candidates to fill the breach should Smith receive a suspension.

And, after their positive performances in rotation in 2013, a short ban does not figure to be too much of an issue for a team that looks set to have arguably their most influential defensive player on the field of the majority of the campaign.

 

Assessing the strength in depth

It is clear that the losses of Bowman and potentially Aldon Smith will be pivotal to the fortunes of the 49ers' front seven in 2014.

But those are not the only two changes that are likely to impact how this imposing unit will shape up in 2014.

In order to obtain a clearer picture of how the front seven will look in the upcoming season, it is important to assess the depth and strength of the players in line to feature on the defensive line and on the linebacking crew.

 

Defensive line

Let's start with the defensive line, which could see more rotation this year with one of its premier starters reaching the twilight of his career.

At 34, it is unclear how much defensive end Justin Smith has left in the tank.

There have been few signs of Smith—who recorded 6.5 sacks in 2013slowing down, however, it remains to be seen how durable he will be going forward.

Smith missed minicamp as he was, in the words of head coach Jim Harbaugh, "working through something," per SB Nation's David Fucillo.

Although there can be little doubt over his desire, determination and talent, the former Cincinnati Bengal will probably need to spelled more often to remain at his destructive best.

It is not just Smith who is advancing in years; the 49ers' other starting end, Ray McDonald, will turn 30 before the start of the season. The good news for San Francisco is that they have a talented young player who has the capabilities to succeed in the NFL set to make his debut in the league.

Drafted in the second round in 2013, Cornellius "Tank" Carradine missed the entirety of his rookie campaign as he rehabilitated from a torn ACL suffered in 2012.

With the benefit of a year's learning time on the sidelines behind him, Carradine possesses the potential to make a huge impact in what will serve as his first true year in the league.

The statistics from Carradine's career at Florida State, in which he totaled 118 tackles and 16.5 sacks, make for impressive reading.

Still, Carradine may well be unlikely to earn significant playing time right off the bat and will in all likelihood have to compete with either Tony Jerod-Eddie or Demarcus Dobbs for snaps.

Both Jerod-Eddie and Dobbs were able to provide Smith and McDonald with significant rest periods due to their play last year, althoughper SB Nation—it was the former that played the great amount of snaps, totaling 378 to Dobbs' 302.

Dobbs' presence on the team appears to be in some jeopardy considering the depth the 49ers have on the defensive side of the trenches going into camp.

Seventh-round pick Ramsey, whose collegiate career spanned six years due to a succession of injury problems, has already been placed on the Physically Unable to Perform List, which does not bode well for his prospects of earning a spot on the roster.

One player who figures to have more of a shot than Ramsey is Quinton Dial, a fifth-round pick out of Alabama in 2013.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Described as a defensive tackle but unquestionably set to compete for a spot as a 3-4 end, Dial saw limited playing time last season due to a toe injury that prevented him from doing any on-the-field work throughout the offseason and through the first six weeks of the season.

Dial was plugged into the team immediately after being activated off the non-football injury list for Week 7, and the fact that the 49ers were confident enough to throw him directly into fray says a lot about their assessment of 6'5" and 318-pound lineman.

Providing that Dial has improved from studying the likes of Smith and McDonald, as he has already hinted during the offseason, then the stage will be set for an intriguing training camp battle between himself, Jerod-Eddie, Dobbs and the exciting Carradine.

Mike Purcell and Olympic athlete turned NFL hopeful Lawrence Okoye will also be bidding to prove themselves.

However, one position that is effectively locked out is the nose tackle spot, which will be occupied by either Glenn Dorsey or Ian Williams in 2014.

Williams won the job in camp last season only to suffer a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2 in Seattle.

Now his task figures to be much harder after former first-round pick Dorsey performed excellently in his stead, giving the Niners a very capable anchor in the middle of the line.

With his 6'1" and 305-pound frame, Williams has the ideal size to be able to perform the same role at a similar high standard, and he should prove to be a worthy opponent to Dorsey in just one of many intriguing preseason positional competitions.

Going into last season, perhaps the main problem with the 49ers defensive line was the lack of quality reserves behind Smith and McDonald.

Jerod-Eddie and Dobbs stepped up and performed admirably, and now, with Carradine and Dial set to be fully active members of the roster, that concern should be a thing of the past. 

The presence of two high-calibre players at nose tackle means that the 49ers have flexibility right across the defensive line, the only issue now is how many linemen they carry.

 

Linebackers

As alluded to earlier, the main concern for the 49ers linebacking crew is the issue of who will fill in for Bowman.

Pro Football Focus
The top inside linebackers in 2013

Along with Patrick Willis, Bowman formed the best inside linebacker tandem in the league, and a stand-in producing the kind of form he demonstrated in 2013 appears to be a near-impossible task.

On the surface, there appear to be four candidates for the job, with Borland set to face off with Wilhoite, Nick Moody and Skov.

But it is worth taking into account that Moody, after coming into the league as a linebacker-safety hybrid, was limited to special teams snaps in an injury-plagued rookie year, and Skov joins San Francisco on the back of a collegiate career that was hampered by a torn ACL, MCL and broken tibia in his second season.

It is, of course, too early to discount either Moody or Skov, but even though the latter heads into the league having been named a third team All-American for his performances in his final year at Stanford, it is more probable that this particular duo will be competing with special teams star Costanzo for a roster spot rather than with Wilhoite and Borland

On paper then, the fight to stand in for Bowman looks poised to be between Borland and Wilhoite.

It is a contest that should provoke significant intrigue, however, while the 49ers will be eager for somebody to step up and replace Bowman, they can look at the situation involving their outside linebackers with genuine excitement.

Indeed, Aldon Smith's effective reprieve has left San Francisco with a plethora of options at the outside linebacker spot.

How many sacks will Aldon Smith have in 2014?

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Much will depend on whether Smith can now finally put his chequered past behind him and replicate his outstanding 2012-13 campaign in which he led the league in sacks with 19.5.

It remains to be seen whether Smith can maintain complete focus on football matters and stay out of the trouble. However, the 49ers and their fans can rest assured that they will have a quality starter playing on the other side of the linebacking corps and impressive depth behind their starting pair.

While Smith endured a controversial campaign in 2013, San Francisco's other starting outside backer Ahmad Brooks continued to increase his reputation.

Brooks has developed from an under-performing pass-rush specialist to one of the more underrated linebackers in the NFL.

The former Cincinnati Bengal was selected to the Pro Bowl last season after putting together 60 tackles with 8.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.

Opposing offenses could devote more attention to Brooks if and when Smith is suspended, yet with the potential quality they have in reserve, that may not be as big of a problem as first anticipated.

When Smith was out of action last term, Skuta and Lemonier performed beyond expectations.

Skuta ended the 2013-14 season as the No. 16 3-4 outside linebacker in the league, according to PFF, who also ranked Lemonier as the most efficient rookie edge rusher in the league in 2013, despite the former Auburn Tiger recording one sack in his maiden NFL campaign.

At 22, Lemonier—who totaled three quarterback hits, 20 hurries and 24 pressures in 2013—has the greater scope to improve, although both he and Skuta will face competition and the position from rookie Lynch.

A standout freshman with Notre Dame before transferring back home to South Florida, where he was named as a first team All-ACC player, Lynch perhaps had the potential to be taken much earlier than the fifth round.

Concerns over his mentality and his weight loss—he weighed in at 249 pounds prior to the draft—are the likely reasons why he dropped to day three of the draft.

Much like Smith, the performance of Lynch will hinge on his focus and temperament, but if they succeed in honing his mindset, then this is a player that has the physical tools to give the 49ers another exciting option off the edge.

 

Position battles

What is clear after evaluating the players on the 49ers defensive line and linebacking core is that San Francisco has outstanding depth on the front seven.

Yet the performance of the unit in 2014 could well be determined by the outcome of two key position battles.

 

Glenn Dorsey vs. Ian Williams

Following Williams' devastating injury in Seattle, Dorsey displayed the kind of talent that led the Kansas City Chiefs to select him with the fifth pick of the 2008 draft.

Dorsey totaled 41 tackles with two sacks last season and, per PFF, was responsible for 27 defensive stops in his maiden campaign with the 49ers.

And it is Dorsey that would appear to have the advantage going into camp after Williams was placed on the PUP list last Friday.

The 49ers were clearly high enough on Williams to hand him the reins to the starting job in 2013.

But now he will start his preparations for the new season behind Dorsey, arguably leaving him with a sizeable task to dislodge the 28-year-old as the starter.

One thing that may count in Williams' favour is that Dorsey is entering a contract year, and while he will be playing to try and secure a new deal, the 49ers may be more inclined to get a greater look at Williams, especially with the likes of Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati all angling for extensions.

But the 49ers are in the business of winning now, meaning that Williams will likely be watching more snaps from sidelines if he is unable to catch up to Dorsey.

 

Michael Wilhoite vs. Chris Borland

Like Williams, Bowman has been placed on the PUP list

This comes as no surprise as he rehabilitates from his awful injury, but it acts as further confirmation that the Niners will be without their best player from 2013 for much of the coming season.

As was stated earlier, it would be surprising for the competition to fill in for Bowman not to end in a two-way battle between Wilhoite and Borland.

Wilhoite appears set to be the front-runner, having played in reserve of Willis last term in Weeks 4 and 5 against the St. Louis Rams and the Houston Texans.

He had an impressive impact in the latter game, making 11 tackles in an easy 34-3 victory for San Francisco.

Given his experience of starting in regular season games, Wilhoite has a distinct advantage over Borland, Moody and Skov. However, per Eric Branch of The San Francisco Chronicle, he is refusing to take anything for granted.

Said Wilhoite: "I'm just going out there every day, and staying hungry and driven. I think that's the mindset I've had from the beginning and that's the mindset I'll keep: just to keep working hard."

And Wilhoite is right to maintain that mentality as he gets set to go up against an extremely determined individual in Borland.

Borland dropped down to the third round amid concerns over his 5'11" and 248-pound frame, his short arms and all-round athleticism.

The drop in his draft stock should only serve to motivate Borland, who overcame his supposed physical limitations to be named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in his final season with Wisconsin, with whom he racked up 420 tackles, 17 sacks, 14 forced fumbles and three interceptions in five years.

San Francisco has had excellent fortune in drafting linebackers over recent years, enjoying great success with Willis, Bowman and Aldon Smith.

Niner fans will hope that Borland pans out in the same way, and it figures to be a finely poised fight with Wilhoite that could well end in the pair splitting time.

 

Final Thoughts

In spite of the expected prolonged absence of Bowman and the potential suspension of Aldon Smith, there is little reason why the 49ers' front seven should not excel in 2014.

The defensive line rotation will need to perform well again for that to be the case with Justin Smith arguably heading into the final throws of his fine career.

Perhaps the decisive factor in how the front seven will develop in 2014 will be the 49ers' ability to replace Bowman on the inside.

Fortunately, the Niners, with Wilhoite, Lemonier and Skuta, have a track record of ensuring that backups play to a high standard when filling in for a starter.

Should that streak continue this coming term, then the 49ers' front seven will in all likelihood be one of the best in football yet again. 

 

Note: All NFL statistics courtesy of NFL.com and all collegiate statistics courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise stated.

Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.

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