The 49ers may assemble for training camp in late July, but their first team practice won't be until Aug. 1. Yes, there will be a couple of rookie signings in that interim, but there also will be loooooooong stretches where there is no 49ers news whatsoever. (Cue the cold sweats and hives). Ah, but I have something for your 49ers' addiction. Over the next month, I plan on going over the entire roster and giving a player-by-player analysis. That is, a look at how a particular player fits in ... or how he doesn't. Also, I'm going to limit the daily briefings to three or four players in an effort to ssssstrrrreeeeeetttttccccchhhhhh this as long as I can.
Let's begin with the defensive line. Expect the 49ers to go into the season with six DLs on their 53-man roster, effectively going two-deep at each spot. One guy to keep an eye on is Ray McDonald. He won't be ready for training camp, but his rehab from an ACL injury is coming along nicely. Look for him to begin training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list but to come off it before the regular season begins.
- Kentwan Balmer. As the 2008 season drew to a close, a lot of fans were using the "b" word in relation to the first-round draft pick, and the word wasn't "bull's-eye." After all, Balmer didn't start a game and he finished with exactly seven tackles at left defensive end, not exactly a sterling beginning. But coaches are guardedly optimistic about Balmer, who, of all the 49ers' defensive linemen, best fits the ideal height-weight ratio for a 3-4 defensive linemen.
Here's an anecdote about Balmer. A few days after he was drafted, he met with the local reporters. One of the requisite questions involved what he would do with his newfound riches. Noticing that he was wearing a plain white t-shirt pock-mocked with stains, I jokingly suggested that he buy a new undershirt. A few days later, we met with Balmer again and he was wearing what appeared to be the same grundy t-shirt. When I made note of that, Balmer said, no, it actually was a different stained shirt. The point of the story is that he's not a high-maintenance guy and he's not afraid to get dirty. Put another way: He has the grunt-like mentality and work ethic needed at the position. That he spent the offseason working out with Justin Smith, one of the hardest workers on the team, is another sign that effort won't be an issue with Balmer.
Balmer's issue is that of most young linemen - that he can't get by on speed and strength alone like he did in college. He'll continue to work on technique this summer with position coach Jim Tomsula, but there are signs that he is making progress. Look for Balmer to begin the season where he finished last season - as Isaac Sopoaga's back-up at left defensive end. There is an expectation, however, that Balmer will be a starter by midseason. Another thing to keep an eye on is Balmer's reps at nose tackle. At least one coach believes that the nose ultimately will be Balmer's best position.
- Demetric Evans. The 49ers always have liked Evans, and they contemplated signing him the first time he became a free agent. He spent the recent minicamps and OTAs mostly playing behind Justin Smith at right defensive end, but he can play both defensive end positions. Evans is not the big, 300 pounder the 49ers would like at the position, but he's a smart and savvy veteran who has played on the inside of the Redskins' 4-3 defense. He is someone the 49ers would feel comfortable starting if there are injury issues.
- Aubrayo Franklin. Franklin may have had his best game in Buffalo late last season. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky moved Franklin to different spots along the line, taking advantage of Franklin's forte - his quickness. The caliber of his performance was shown in the statistics of the two linebackers playing behind him. Patrick Willis led all tacklers with 14 stops; Takeo Spikes was tied for second on the team with six. The question, however, is whether quickness is what Manusky and the 49ers want at the position. The team has signalled in the past that it would like to replace Franklin as the starter. With that in mind, the 49ers will give a long looks to Balmer and Sopoaga - both of whom are more physical - at nose tackle this summer. One scenario for the season has Balmer starting at LDE, Sopoaga at NT and Justin Smith at RDE.
Note - 49ers rookies will report for training camp on July 28. Veterans will report on July 30. The team has meetings all day July 31. The first practice is scheduled for Aug. 1.
-- Matt Barrows