San Francisco 49ers

Roster watch: 49ers to continue Okoye experiment in 2015

London native Lawrence Okoye will continue his quest of playing in the NFL in 2015
London native Lawrence Okoye will continue his quest of playing in the NFL in 2015 AP

The 49ers signed practice-squad player Lawrence Okoye to a reserve/future deal this week, which means the big Brit will be with the team during the offseason and, for the third time, will compete for a role on the defensive line.

Yes, defensive line. Okoye practiced as an offensive tackle when there were injuries with that unit at various points this season, and Jim Harbaugh at one point acknowledged that Okoye's long legs and long arms suggested he was suited for the offensive side of the ball.

However, Okoye said recently that he wants to remain on defense. Last month defensive coordinator Vic Fangio – a candidate for head coach – said he still envisioned Okoye playing on defense. The 6-6 Okoye, an Olympic-level discus thrower, never had played football -- never had worn a helmet -- until the 49ers signed him as an undrafted rookie in 2013.

Okoye and every young defensive lineman stands a better shot of earning playing time in 2015. That's because one starter, Ray McDonald, will not be in the mix while another, Justin Smith, is on the fence about returning for a 15th season. Smith's play tailed off at the end of the season as he battled a back injury.

Smith's regular-season snap counts have diminished significantly in each of the last four seasons:

* 2011: 970

* 2012: 819 (he missed two starts with a triceps tear)

* 2013: 780

* 2014: 694

Should Smith not return, an early possible composition for the 49ers' defensive line looks like this: LDE Tony Jerod-Eddie (an exclusive rights free agent), NT Ian Williams, RDE Glenn Dorsey. Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial would enter the game in the team's nickel package with young players like Okoye, Mike Purcell, Kaleb Ramsey and any rookies competing for backup spots.

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Earlier in the week, the 49ers signed five other practice squad players to reserve/future contracts: running back Kendall Gaskins, tight end Xavier Grimble, wide receiver Lance Lewis, offensive tackle Chris Martin and nose tackle Garrison Smith.

Absent from that list is another practice squad player, Shayne Skov. When the 49ers ran low on inside linebackers at the end of the season, they signed Desmond Bishop instead of elevating Skov to the active roster. That, plus the abundance of inside linebackers on the roster, likely means Skov will look at other options before re-upping with the 49ers.

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Trindon Holliday is signed for 2015. The return specialist averaged 27.7 yards per return Sunday, his only action of the year for the 49ers. That's better than the 24.4-yards the team averaged during the season. Holliday did not get any chances to return punts.

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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