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Camp Preview: Defensive Line

Posted Jul 9, 2012

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.


Justin Smith just about swept the San Francisco 49ers team awards in 2011. He won the Len Eshmont Award (inspirational and courageous play), Bill Walsh Award (team MVP), Matt Hazeltine Iron Man Award (most inspirational defensive player) and Perry/Yonamine Unity Award (exceptional commitment). All of the honors were certainly well-deserved. Smith, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound All-Pro defensive tackle, posted 105 tackles, 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups and one fumble recovery on his way to being named to a third consecutive Pro Bowl. Smith’s relentless effort was also pivotal in two regular season wins over the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants where the lineman known as “Cowboy” single-handedly put an end to comeback efforts from two clubs hailing from the NFC East. Such performances earned him the No. 17 spot on the NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2012 list. But it wasn’t just Smith who dominated the trenches for San Francisco. Fellow starting defensive linemen Isaac Sopoaga (nose tackle) and Ray McDonald (defensive end) formed one of the most formidable defensive fronts in all of the NFL and combined to make 161 tackles. The 49ers led the league in rush defense (allowing 77.3 rushing yards per game) and finished the year allowing just three rushing scores, the lowest total allowed since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978. Training camp position battles likely won’t include San Francisco’s defensive linemen, but there’s plenty of young talent looking for greater roles in 2012. How the understudies perform in camp and in preseason games will be pivotal in determining how many opportunities open up for increased playing time in the regular season.


RETURNERS: Justin Smith (12th season, fifth in San Francisco), Isaac Sopoaga (ninth season), Ray McDonald (sixth season), Ricky Jean Francois (fourth season), Will Tukuafu (second season), Demarcus Dobbs (second season) and Ian Williams (second season). NEWCOMERS: Patrick Butrym (undrafted, Wisconsin), Matthew Masifilo, (undrafted, Stanford) and Tony Jerod-Eddie (undrafted, Texas A&M).

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.

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