49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

June 28, 2009
Detailed d-line continued ...

Continuing our magnifying-glass look at the defensive line, here are the rest of the defensive players on the team who are 275 pounds and above ...

  • Ray McDonald, 6-3, 290. McDonald's play seemed to tail off toward the end of last season. What we now know is that he was dealing with an ACL injury, the same one that gave him trouble at Florida and one that he still will be rehabilitating when training camp begins. McDonald is a rare talent in that he is a big guy with quick-twitch skills. With that in mind, the 49ers like to use him as a back-up to Justin Smith and on the inside of the defensive line on obvious passing downs. Look for McDonald to begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list. If he's still on PUP when the regular seasons starts, he'll have to sit out the first six weeks. If that's the case, rookie Ricky Jean-Francois' chances of making the 53-man roster improve immensely.
  • Justin Smith, 6-4, 282. The big critique when the 49ers signed Smith for (potentially) $45 million last year was that they were breaking the bank for someone who's not a playmaker. Smith finished the 2007 season with a two sacks, a career low. However, he improved that mark to seven last year and was one of several defenders who benefited from a simplification (or "denolanization") of the defense at midseason. Smith has the dimensions of a prototypical 4-3 defensive end, but he proved strong and tenacious enough for the 49ers' scheme. Opposing defenses clearly saw Smith as the biggest threat on the 49ers' defensive line and typically put two - and sometimes three - blockers on him. Smith seems to be very much the same type of player Bryant Young used to be - a blue-collar guy who is respected far more by teammates and opponents than by the national media. Smith certainly would benefit from a sophomore surge by left defensive end Kentwan Balmer, the player he has been mentoring this offseason.
  • Isaac Sopoaga, 6-2, 330. He's the strongest player on the team, he's athletic for a big man and he's entering his sixth year. So why hasn't Sopoaga had a bigger impact? The problem is that he's not an instinctual player. Sopoaga seems to be best the closer he is to the ball, which is why some inside the organization think he'd be better at nose tackle than at defensive end. His bulk certainly supports that hypothesis. Sopoaga, however, has said in the past that he's much happier at end than on the nose because he has less to worry about. What does that leave the 49ers with? A solid player who can't quite fulfill his potential.

Others to watch: Jean-Francois (6-3, 295), who got plenty of work this spring when McDonald and Balmer were out with injuries. The 49ers believe they got a third-round talent late in the seventh round. At the very least, Jean-Francois makes the practice squad ... Undrafted free-agent Khalif Mitchell (6-5, 318) has nice size, but he needs plenty of seasoning and could be a practice squad player ... Pannel Egboh (6-6, 276) has a lot of catching up to do after missing most of the spring drills ....

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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