The San Francisco 49ers are set for training camp to begin at the end of the month. But before the team can defend its NFC West division crown this upcoming season, let’s take a look at the depth of each position group on the roster as they prepare for camp. Defensive linemen are up next.
RETURNERS: Justin Smith (12th season, fifth in San Francisco), Isaac Sopoaga (ninth season), Ray McDonald (sixth season),
With established veterans in place and a group of emerging defensive linemen with position flexibility on the roster led by fourth-year player Ricky Jean Francois, the 49ers opted not to draft any defensive linemen in the 2012 NFL Draft. Instead of developing rookies, San Francisco intends to work with second-year linemen Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams, who both made the squad as undrafted rookies. However, most of the 49ers youthful depth on the defensive line had to wait their turns to play last season. With Smith, Sopoaga and McDonald playing at a high level because of their exceptional fitness levels – combined with the defense’s propensity to force three-and-outs – the backups were hard-pressed to find consistent playing time. Those roles for the young defensive linemen, however, could change based on how the practice reps were divvied out in the offseason program.
Dating back to Smith’s rookie season in 2001, the dominant defender has started in 171 consecutive games which leads all defensive linemen and ranks third among all defensive players.
“I think definitely. It always helps when your best players are your hardest workers. And he definitely falls in that category. And it’s easy for young guys to follow suit. I think it helped Aldon last year. I think it helped guys like Dobbs. I think it’s helped guys like Ray and Isaac develop. He’s had an effect on everybody because of his work ethic and toughness that it’s infectious.”
-Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on whether his young defensive linemen follow Justin Smith’s example on and off the field.