What do the 49ers expect from Elvis Dumervil this season? The template is Dwight Freeney, whom the Falcons signed in August of last year when they were desperate to boost a pass rush that finished last in the league in sacks the previous year.
Freeney, who was 36 during the 2016 season, didn't put up big numbers. He had three sacks in 15 games to go along with 18 quarterback hurries. (By comparison the 49ers' leader in hurries last season was Ahmad Brooks with 16).
Freeney's biggest impact was how he affected teammates, especially Vic Beasley, who lined up opposite Freeney and had an NFL-best 15 1/2 sacks last season as well as 30 quarterback hurries.
"He's a lot like Tony Gonzalez was when he was with us," said David Archer, the ex-quarterback who handles color commentary for Atlanta's radio broadcasts. "Tony just constantly worked on his craft. As a young player, you watch that and take that to heart. It was a hard-working team (last season). They had a guy in Dwight Freeney who really set an example, and they followed suit."
Like Dumervil, Brooks is 33. But he's admittedly reserved when it comes to mentoring younger players and hasn't been the strongest leader on the team. Dumervil provides the 49ers young defensive line -- especially edge rushers like Eli Harold and Pita Taumoepenu -- with something the team had been missing.
"First of all, he gives a great role model for these guys," general manager John Lynch said. "I watched Dwight Freeney and Kyle (Shanahan) experience that last year. Aside from his production, what he brought to that (defensive line) room was something pretty special."
The 2016 Falcons also provides insight for how the 49ers might use their defensive personnel this season.
Beasley's sack numbers are all the more impressive because he wasn't a pin-his-ears-back edge pass rusher on every play. On base downs, he lined up at strong-side linebacker, the spot Brooks is playing for San Francisco.
On nickel downs, however, he moved to one of the defensive-end spots while Freeney typically entered the game at the other. Freeney played 415 defensive snaps last season -- the vast majority in the nickel package -- which is approximately what the 49ers envision for Dumervil.
The 49ers' version could go something like this: On base downs, Brooks plays strong-side linebacker while Arik Armstead plays the "Leo" end spot.
On passing downs, the defensive line looks like a standard 4-3 alignment with two defensive ends and two defensive tackles. In those situations, Armstead either bumps inside to defensive tackle or goes to the sideline while Dumervil comes in and rushes from one of the edges. Brooks puts his hand in the dirt and rushes from the other.
Of course, the 49ers coaches want to rotate heavily throughout the year, so the compositions of the line will vary throughout the game just as the Falcons' did last season. But the objective is to get the speediest and best pass rushers on the edges in obvious passing situations.
Defensive line notes:
* How important is a consistent edge rush in the defense the 49ers play? When Dan Quinn arrived in Atlanta from Seattle in 2015, his first draft choice was Beasley. In 2016, he signed Freeney. And in April, the Falcons used their first-round pick on another edge rusher, UCLA's Takkarist McKinley. The 49ers have spent far less capital at the edges in recent years and it likely will be/must be a focus in coming drafts.
* How does first-round pick Solomon Thomas fit into the mix? He'll likely play the 'big' defensive end spot on base downs and be part of the rotation at defensive tackle on passing downs. He, DeForest Buckner and Armstead could rotate at the two defensive tackle spots in the nickel alignment.
* As was the case in previous years, when the 49ers change into their nickel defense, the nose tackle comes off the field and a nickel back -- it's a battle among K'Waun Williams, Will Redmond and Keith Reaser -- enters the game. The big end essentially becomes a defensive tackle and the strong-side linebacker essentially becomes a defensive end.