Back in June, Mike Nolan said that teams that run a 3-4 defense typically keep five to seven defensive linemen. The 49ers ended up keeping eight on the active roster, had a ninth, rookie Joe Cohen, on injured reserve and a tenth, Melvin Oliver, on the physically unable to perform list. Nolan and co. will pare down that number this year. That will partly come from attrition (Bryant Young) and partly from competition. Here’s a look at the final four linemen currently on the roster.
Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers reeled in three defensive players on the first day of free agency. Cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis were instant hits – the duo finished second and third on the team in total tackles. The third player, Franklin, did not make as big a splash. That, however, is more due to his position than anything else. Franklin, who arrived from Baltimore, is charged with holding the point. That is, he is asked to take on as many blockers as possible without losing ground at the line of scrimmage. If he is successful, running plays are bottled up. If he’s not, blockers are able to slip into the second level of the 49ers’ defense. Built like a bowling ball (6-1, 334 lbs.), Franklin is a hard guy to dislodge and he has surprising athletic ability for a man his size. He sprained his MCL in August and started the season slowly. However, he played best toward the end of the season, holding the point well in the final few games. After starting only one game in his previous four seasons, Franklin made 13 starts in 2007. The 49ers’ issue this offseason isn’t Franklin, it’s finding someone to back him up.
Ray McDonald. The 49ers coaches believe McDonald will take off in 2008. The rookie showed excellent instincts and ability during spring minicamps. Like most rookies, however, he slowed down a bit when it came time to learn the playbook and tweak his technique. The prevailing thought is that it will all come together for McDonald this season. As has been written before, McDonald has terrific anticipation and gets off the line of scrimmage faster than anyone else on the team. At more than 280 pounds, he also has the size the 49ers covet. McDonald played mostly right defensive end this past season. If Marques Douglas leaves via free agency, McDonald will compete for the starting spot.
Melvin Oliver. The second-year linemen was competeing for a back-up spot at left defensive end when he tore the ACL in his right knee during a June practice. Oliver played in all 16 games his rookie season and finished with 43 tackles. How much he figures into the mix in 2008 will depend on the strength of his knee.
Isaac Sopoaga. The best free-agent-to-be at defensive tackle is Tennessee’s Albert Haynesworth. But many insiders expect the Titans to franchise Haynesworth, thus keeping him off the market. Who would the second-best prospect be? How about Sopoaga, whose combination of strength, quickness and youth – he’s only 26 – makes him a hot commodity. The 49ers definitely want Sopoaga back, and Sopoaga has said he wants to be loyal to the team that drafted him. But he’d be foolish not to at least dip his toe into the free-agency pool, and it appears he and his agent plan to do just that. If the 49ers can convince Sopoaga to stay, he would be an excellent back up at nose tackle. But there’s also a sense that he has the athleticism to slide into Bryant Young’s former spot at left defensive end. The hope is that Sopoaga ends up being a composite of San Diego’s defensive ends – as powerful as Igor Olshansky and as quick as Luis Castillo.
-- Matt Barrows