The defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers will open training camp at the end of the month. But before the pads come on and the competition for 53 coveted roster spots begin, 49ers.com will preview the storylines to track for each position group on the team. San Francisco's hard-working defensive linemen come into focus next in our "49ers Camp Preview" series.OVERVIEW
The 49ers have consistently put out one of the best defensive fronts in the National Football League ever since Justin Smith signed with the team in 2008. Smith will continue to be the leader of San Francisco's defensive line group now that the 13-year veteran has signed a two-year contract extension with the club that will keep him in the red and gold through the 2015 season. Smith, a four-time Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro at both defensive tackle and defensive end, is close to regaining full strength after an offseason triceps surgery caused him to miss the team's offseason program. Despite being sidelined from drills, Smith's dedication to the team rubbed off on teammates, especially in the weight room. Ray McDonald, for example, continues to improve each season playing opposite of Smith. McDonald has improved his tackling numbers in each of his last three seasons. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive tackle posted a career-high 106 tackles in 2012, a year in which he was named as San Francisco's Matt Hazeltine award winner, given to the most inspirational and courageous defensive player on the team.
The 49ers have two of the best defensive tackles in the league set to start in 2013, however, the nose tackle position will be a competitive battle when training camp begins. Third-year nose tackle Ian Williams (6-foot-1, 305 pounds) and free agent addition Glenn Dorsey (6-foot-1, 297 pounds) are the frontrunners to earn the starting spot on the defensive line in between Smith and McDonald. Williams signed a two-year contract extension; Dorsey signed a two-year contract at the start of free agency.
San Francisco's starting nose tackle will carry a great deal of responsibility when it comes to maintaining the defensive unit's run-stuffing success. The 49ers ranked second in the NFL last season, allowing 3.59 yards per carry on first downs. Furthermore, the defense ranked first in the NFL, allowing 3.53 yards per carry on second downs. Forcing teams to be in third-and-long situations has been a calling card of the defense under respected coordinator Vic Fangio. DEPTH
RETURNERS: Justin Smith (13th season), Ray McDonald (seventh season), Ian Williams (third season), Will Tukuafu (third season), Demarcus Dobbs (third season), Tony Jerod-Eddie (second season) and Lamar Divens (fourth season, 2012 practice squad). NEWCOMERS: Glenn Dorsey, (sixth season, free agent) Garrett Celek (second-round pick, Florida State), Quinton Dial (fifth-round pick, Alabama), Mike Purcell (undrafted, Wyoming) and Lawrence Okoye (undrafted, British Olympian).
Even with established defensive linemen in the 3-4 scheme, the 49ers made a point do add depth to the defensive line group in the 2013 NFL Draft and also made a quality free agency addition by picking up Dorsey, the former No. 5 overall pick in the 2008 draft. Following the Dorsey acquisition, San Francisco spent two of 11 draft selections on defensive linemen. Carradine and Dial come to the 49ers with the ability to play multiple positions on the defensive line. However, neither of the two young prospects have been able to practice with their new teammates this offseason. Both intriguing linemen have nursed injuries in the short time they've been in San Francisco. Fangio didn't speculate on a return date for the rookie duo, but did stressed that both would have to earn opportunities to rotate among the team's established defensive linemen. Other candidates for greater roles in 2013 include hybrid linemen, Tukuafu and Dobbs. Both have mixed in on offense since the 2012 offseason, Tukuafu as a fullback and Dobbs as a tight end. The goal, however, is to use them more on the defensive line and leaders on the defense like Smith have been pleased with their progress as defensive linemen. Another player to watch is Okoye, a former British Olympian, who will be putting on football pads for the first time in his life when training camp begins.
From 2008 through 2012, the 49ers have allowed an average of 3.62 yards per carry, which is the second best total in franchise history over a five-year span.
"I'm playing this one, I know that for a fact and then we'll go from there. I feel good, that's the main thing."
-Smith on playing future seasons after signing a two-year extension that'll keep him in San Francisco through 2015.