Nose tackle has been a position of intrigue for the San Francisco 49ers for the past two offseasons. Ian Williams has long been considered to be the guy to anchor the defensive line but, for a number of different reasons, has not been able to make the position his own. That should change in 2015.
Williams won a position battle with Dorsey in 2013 but saw his season ended by an ankle injury sustained in the Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The former Notre Dame player was handed the job in 2014 due to a biceps injury suffered by Dorsey. However, he again failed to complete the season because of a fractured lower left leg, with Quinton Dial filling in for the remainder of the campaign.
At this time, Williams, Dorsey and Dial are all poised to be healthy for training camp, when the starting job in the middle of the D-line will once again likely be up for grabs. And it is Williams who is the best fit to be the No. 1 guy at nose tackle in 2015.
While there are sure to be questions over his durability following a pair of season-ending injuries early in his career, Williams has impressed when he has seen significant playing time and, at 6'1" and 305 pounds, has the ideal size to two-gap effectively on the Niners' three-man defensive front.
|Ian Williams v Glenn Dorsey v Quinton Dial Comparison|
|Sacks||QB hits||QB Hurries||Tackles||Assists|
|Ian Williams 2014 (9 games)||1||0||7||18||4|
|Glenn Dorsey 2013 (19 games including playoffs||2||2||6||41||7|
|Quinton Dial 2014 (14 games)||2||2||10||16||7|
|Pro Football Focus|
Playing nine games in 2014, Williams received an overall grade of 12.4 from Pro Football Focus, impressing in run defense and, more surprisingly, in rushing the passer. Williams was given a 7.7 grade for his play against the run and a 4.0 for his performance in pressuring the quarterback.
With the rise of the nickel and dime defense in the modern NFL, the second statistic is less significant given that nose tackles are not as involved on passing downs, but it hints that Williams has a better all-round skill set than Dorsey, who, in 2013, graded out at 10.6 against the run but minus-5.7 in pass rushing, per PFF.
Let's dive a little deeper, though, and look at how Williams has excelled when operating as the starting nose tackle for the Niners. Here in Week 3 against the Arizona Cardinals, we get a good example of Williams' aptitude against the run.
It is tough to see in the mass of bodies, but Williams does an excellent job of preventing Andre Ellington from breaking a big gain on this cutback play. He is able to fight his way back to the ball-carrier by getting low and delivering a good punch to shake off his blocker and is athletic enough to run down Ellington.
Williams produced another demonstration of his skills as a run defender in Week 6 of last season in a 31-17 win over the St. Louis Rams.
On this occasion, Williams shows his athleticism to spin away from the opposing lineman and gets himself in a superb position to record one of his six tackles in the game, this one for a loss. But, as alluded to earlier, Williams has also shown proficiency when defending the pass and—per PFF—registered seven hurries and one sack, which came in Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
With the Eagles failing to get a successful screen going and several players surrounding quarterback Nick Foles, a sack was always the most likely outcome of this play. What is impressive again, though, is the athleticism Williams displays to be able chase down Foles and get credit for the sack.
The primary question surrounding Williams will be whether he can maintain his athletic ability following two relatively serious injuries, however at age 25, there is no doubt that a player who is effective two-gapper and can impact the game in passing as well as running situations is a better fit to start at nose tackle than an aging Dorsey.
That is not to say Dorsey is not capable of performing well at nose tackle. The former Kansas City Chief's contribution to San Francisco's run to the NFC Championship Game in the 2013 season cannot be understated. Both Williams and Dorsey are free agents in 2016 but, with the latter turning 30 in August, the ideal scenario for the 49ers would be to get a finally get a full season out of the younger player who they have long regarded as the guy at nose tackle.
Starting Williams at nose would also give the Niners the additional flexibility of using Dorsey's versatility to potentially slot him in as one of the two defensive ends, giving San Francisco more experience on a D-line that has gotten significantly younger with the retirement of Justin Smith and the release of Ray McDonald and could well be gambling on the likes of Tank Carradine and rookie Arik Armstead to make big strides.
Dial deserves to be in the conversation following his admirable play in reserve of Williams last year, when he demonstrated powerful hands, good strength, decent quickness and the awareness to quickly diagnose plays. But, as head coach Jim Tomsula—per David Fucillo of Niners Nation—has pointed out, Dial is a better suited to playing as an end and now has the experience at least be a valuable player in rotation.
Once again it seems the fight for the starting nose tackle spot will be between Williams and Dorsey. He will need to prove his worth again in training camp, but after previously beating out Dorsey and then impressing in limited action in 2014, it is time to give Williams the full year to convince the 49ers he is the man to hold down the position at the head of the D-line for years to come.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.