San Francisco 49ers

49ers look ahead: D-line formidable despite major departures

Video: San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Preview

Matt Barrows talks about the three things he'll have his eye on when 49ers training camp begins later this week. Video by Manny Crisostomo.
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Matt Barrows talks about the three things he'll have his eye on when 49ers training camp begins later this week. Video by Manny Crisostomo.

Over the next week, I’ll be ranking the 49ers position groups from strongest to weakest. Next up ...

Defensive line

Recap: The two men who accounted for nearly 80 percent of the snaps for the 49ers at defensive end over the last four seasons are -- poof! -- suddenly gone. So how can this position rank so highly? Because despite the departures of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, defensive line remains the deepest position on the squad, so deep in fact that it wouldn't be surprising if GM Trent Baalke tries to trade a linemen this summer. Smith retired after 14 seasons and the 49ers gladly would have had him back for a 15th. Still, his play time declined from 91 percent of the snaps in 2011 to 66.3 percent last season. Smith noted that he essentially had been playing with one arm in recent years. A one-armed Smith still was better than most NFL defensive linemen but Smith decided it no longer was good enough for him. Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Tank Carradine saw the leftover snaps at defensive end last year. Still, it's possible -- even likely -- that none of them starts this year (see below). At nose tackle, Glenn Dorsey was lost for the season due to a biceps injury suffered in training camp while Ian Williams' season ended with a broken fibula in November. Quinton Dial ended up playing out of position at nose tackle, starting there the last half of the season.

Outlook -- The plan seems to be to replace Smith and McDonald with two men apiece. One of the standouts of spring was Quinton Dial, who could start at left defensive end in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme while Glenn Dorsey, reprising his role with the Chiefs, starts at right defensive end. Smith, the savvy veteran, worked well alongside pass rusher Aldon Smith over the years, and the 49ers are hoping for a similar dynamic between Dorsey and Aldon Smith. On passing downs, the plan could be for Carradine to enter the game on the right side and for free-agent acquisition Darnell Dockett to play on the left. Dockett mostly played on the left side during 10 previous seasons with the Cardinals. Given how often the 49ers are in pass coverage, that scenario would call for an almost even split between those playing base downs (Dial and Dorsey) and those coming in to pass rush (Dockett and Carradine). Still, that doesn't afford much playing time to other worthy linemen such as Jerod-Eddie, who played 40 percent of the snaps last year, and to first-round draft pick Arik Armstead. Williams is the top choice at nose tackle with Dorsey, Dial and Mike Purcell also able to play the position. Other defensive linemen on the roster are Lawrence Okoye, Kaleb Ramsey and Garrison Smith. Dobbs was released in November.

Question marks: Dockett is not yet a year removed from tearing his ACL. He vowed he'd be ready for Week 1 against the Vikings, but there's still a chance he begins training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list. (We'll find out this week). If that's the case, look for Jerod-Eddie and perhaps Armstead to take the snaps Dockett would have received. ... If the 49ers tried to trade a defensive lineman, who would they move? And where would they move him? Well, Jerod-Eddie is practically brothers with Broncos pass rusher Von Miller. The 49ers and Broncos also will scrimmage for two days before their Aug. 29 preseason game. Baalke is tight with his Denver counterpart, John Elway. The Broncos also are in the AFC, and the teams won't play each other in the regular season until 2018. See where I'm heading? ... With Justin Smith retired, Okoye becomes the undisputed king of the weight room. But will his awareness and feel for the game finally catch up with his incredible strength and athleticism? He is eligible for the practice squad for a second straight season.

Person of interest. That honor goes to Dial, who had a strong spring session and, finally playing the more natural defensive end spot instead of nose tackle, seems poised for a breakout type of season. Dial is a little bigger than McDonald and Justin Smith, who played the position from 290 to 300 pounds. Dial is well over 300 pounds but showed he can move that weight very well. With Ahmad Brooks also looking nimble this offseason, that signals that the left side of the defensive line could be as formidable as the right.

49ers position ranking:

1. outside linebacker

2. safety

3. defensive line

4. coming Monday

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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