Did the 49ers’ defensive line have a good year in 2007? The answer lies not in the linemen’s statistics but in Patrick Willis’ stats. After all, the line’s job is to occupy blockers so that Willis and his linebackers mates can make tackles unmolested. And considering that Willis finished with 174 tackles, a Pro Bowl nomination and the defensive rookie of the year award, well, it’s clear the line had a pretty good year. The better question is whether Willis can duplicate those numbers in ’08. His most important ally, Bryant Young, will retire while right defensive end, Marques Douglas, might not be back either. Replacing them will be critical to the 49ers’ defensive success. Here’s a rundown of the team’s linemen:
Joe Cohen. The fourth rounder had a rough introduction to the NFL. Cohen got shoved around in training camp, then suffered a devastating knee injury in a preseason game that left him with a torn ACL. He probably won't start practicing again until training camp, and when he does he’ll find plenty of competition at the nose tackle position. Cohen seems like a smart guy. The question is whether he has the work ethic needed to play nose tackle. One thing in his favor is that he’s rehabilitating alongside linebacker Manny Lawson, who won’t allow him to slack off.
Marques Douglas. The team’s right defensive end excelled in his contract year, starting all 16 games at right defensive end and finishing fourth on the team in solo tackles with 55. Douglas was very good at setting the edge on running plays and was constantly in the opponent’s backfield. He has not missed a game in the three years he has been with San Francisco. But despite a paucity of defensive ends for their 3-4 defense, the 49ers are willing to let Douglas hit the free-agent market. He turns 31 in March, and while no one on the team works harder, he is not blessed with a Bryant Young-like physique. The fear is that Douglas already has reached his peak and that his body is on the way down. The 49ers certainly value Douglas’ work ethic and leadership, and they would re-sign him if the price is right. But if one of 31 teams values him a little more, he will be gone.
Atiyyah Ellison. When Mike Nolan was in Baltimore, the Ravens always seemed to have nice depth at the critical nose tackle position. The 49ers grabbed Ellison in early September with that in mind. Ellison didn’t play at all in 2007 while Isaac Sopoaga filled in as the back-up nose tackle, but the 49ers thought enough of him to keep him on the 53-man roster throughout the season. The question now is whether Ellison can figure into the nose tackle mix in 2008. He certainly has the size for the position. He and Aubrayo Franklin are the team’s biggest defenders.
Ronald Fields. The 49ers have gotten just what they expected out of Fields when they drafted him in the fifth round in 2005. He’s got nice quickness for a man his size and can play all three positions along the defensive line. In 2007, he mostly rotated at left defensive end with Young and finished with 21 tackles and his first career sack. But the 49ers are hoping Isaac Sopoaga, not Fields, takes Young’s spot in 2008. Fields is entering the final year of his contract and because of that, he will be at the top of his game. At this point, however, the 49ers continue to see him as a player who can give their starters a breather.
The NFL's Adam Schefter is reporting that guard Larry Allen plans to retire after 14 seasons. So far, Allen hasn't told the 49ers he plans to do so, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise. Allen's play dropped off in 2007 after a Pro Bowl season in 2006. He likely will go down as one of the best interior linemen to play the game and is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
One more award to announce. The 49ers players voted center Eric Heitmann the winner of the Ed Block Courage Award, given to the player that exemplifies a commitment to sportsmanship and courage. Heitmann suffered a broken leg in December 2006 but came back to start all 16 games this season. Heitmann will take part in the 30th annual national Ed Block Courage Awards Foundation ceremony on March 11 in Baltimore where he will be honored with the 31 other award winners from each NFL team.
-- Matt Barrows