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July 22, 2013
90 Niners: Defensive review of the 49ers' training-camp roster

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The 49ers' first practice of training camp is Thursday. We ran down every offensive player on the roster Sunday; here are their defensive counterparts:

Defensive line
Justin Smith. The veteran signed a contract extension last month that virtually guarantees he'll end his career in San Francisco. Smith, 33, suffered his first-ever major injury last year but should be at full strength this season. The question for Smith and the rest of the linemen is whether they'll get more relief during the regular season with Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial and others waiting in the wings. The 49ers' defensive starters typically play well over 90 percent of the defensive snaps, which add up when the season extends into February.

Glenn Dorsey. He'll step into the nose-tackle role Isaac Sopoaga - now with the Eagles - filled in recent years. Dorsey won't be asked to pressure the quarterback. Instead, he'll have to occupy blockers, clog the middle on the run game and keep inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman clean. Something to keep an eye on: Sopoaga came off the field in nickel situations and hardly played at all against some pass-happy teams like Green Bay. Will the 49ers have a secondary role for Dorsey to augment his snaps?

Ray McDonald. McDonald was considered a huge injury risk during the 2007 draft. He's started every game but one for the 49ers in the last two seasons and elevated his game when Smith was hurt late last year. The chemistry between him and left outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is good, but it's not to the level of their counterparts Smith and Aldon Smith on the right side.

Ian Williams. Williams only had a few snaps in the last two years, but he evidently made the most of them. The 49ers gave the former undrafted lineman a contract extension this offseason that came with a $1 million bonus. Williams is a smart, high-effort player. Still, the extension was curious given Dorsey's later signing and the fact that the 49ers don't use nose tackles - Williams' natural position - all that heavily.

Will Tukuafu. One of several undrafted defenisve linemen on the team, Tukuafu has excellent strength and has carved a role for himself by being able to play special teams and be a backup fullback. He'll begin training camp behind McDonald on the left side but has more competition for his roster spot than he's had in previous years.

Demarcus Dobbs. Another undrafted player, Dobbs roared onto the scene in 2011 when he was unblockable in the preseason. However, he hasn't had much impact since and, like Tukuafu, he is in a fight for the roster spot he's occupied the last two years. Dobbs primarily has backed up Justin Smith on the right side.

Tank Carradine.* He was drafted early in Round 2 to take over for Justin Smith. The question now is when that apprenticeship will begin. Carradine tore his ACL in November, and the 49ers are not rushing his recovery. Carradine is on the non-football injury list. If he's still on that list in September, he'll have to sit out the first half of the season.

Quinton Dial.* The fifth-round draft pick also suffered an injury late last year and also is on the non-football injury list. Dial, who could be a backup at all three defensive line spots, tore a ligament in his big toe and had surgery in the offseason. Like Carradine, his return to the lineup is unknown at this point.

Tony Jerod-Eddie. At 6-5, 301, he has prototypical size for a 3-4 defensive end and showed enough flashes last offseason that the 49ers decided to keep him on the practice squad. Jerod-Eddie faces a crowded roster at his position. However, with the two draft picks sidelined, he should get plenty of opportunities to shine early in training camp.

Lamar Divens. It's hard to see three nose tackles making the 49ers' roster considering how infrequently that position is on the field in the team's scheme. Divens' off-field confrontation with Brooks makes his presence here even more unimaginable. Brooks allegedly struck Divens three times with a beer bottle last month, drawing blood. According to the local district attorney, Divens has demanded $1 million from Brooks. When that request was denied, Divens, who told police he did not want to press charges, changed his mind, the DA said. Is there a civil suit in the offing? Who knows, but it has the makings of an awkward locker room.

Lawrence Okoye. The former British discus thrower already is a wonderful storyline, and if he's still with the 49ers when they go to London in October, reporters will be doing backflips. That said, here's some advice for the 21-year-old tyro: Stay low. Okoye is tall (6-5) and has really long legs. That will work against him when full-contact drills commence this summer. Good luck, old chap.

Mike Purcell. The undrafted lineman from Wyoming was a First-Team All-Mountain West Conference selection last year after averaging an impressive 6.9 tackles per game, including 36 solo stops. At 6-3, 305, he has the size to play all three defensive line positions. Again, however, there are more quality defensive linemen on the squad than there have been in recent years, and it's unlikely that an undrafted rookie will crack the roster.

Inside linebacker
Patrick Willis. Willis is not nearly as charismatic as the player he's often compared to, Ray Lewis. But when Justin Smith went down with an injury late last season, Willis noticeably stepped forward into a leadership role, one that he's continued this offseason. Willis has taken on the task of covering the opponent's tight end, which on other squads falls to safeties and cornerbacks. He's had mixed results. But it illustrates the kind of player he is. He easily could lead the team in tackles each season. Instead, those tackles are funneled more toward NaVorro Bowman while Willis has the more difficult and thankless jobs in pass coverage.

NaVorro Bowman. The 49ers' defense is unique because it has two inside linebackers who stay on the field all three downs. (Unless opponents go with four wide receivers). Willis' and Bowman's speed and savvy make that a team strength instead of a liability.

Michael Wilhoite. He was elevated from the practice squad last season and had an immediate impact on special teams coverage units. The 49ers will keep perhaps three core special teams players this year and Wilhoite has as good chance as any to be one of them.

Nick Moody. The 49ers' special teams coverage units suffered last year (See: Super Bowl, start of second half) and the team has brought in a number of special teams aces as a result. One of them is Moody, a sixth-round draft pick from Florida State. He has a background at safety and has very good speed for an inside linebacker. That's what makes him an intriguing apprentice to Willis and Bowman.

Darius Fleming.* The former fifth-round pick never got a real chance to show what he could do at outside linebacker. He suffered an ACL injury mere minutes into his first 49ers practice in May 2012, ending his season. The 49ers switched him to inside linebacker this year and Fleming suffered an injury to the same knee. It's not considered as serious, but Fleming will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Nate Stupar. He was drafted by the Raiders in the seventh round in 2012 and spent most of last season on the Eagles' practice squad. The 49ers added him to their own practice squad for the playoffs. Like any other backup on defense, Stupar's ticket to making the roster is on special teams.

Outside linebacker
Aldon Smith. At one point last season, it seemed certain that Smith would break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record. But from Dec. 16 through the Super Bowl, Smith was sack-less. Was it because linemate Justin Smith wasn't at full strength or because Aldon Smith was struggling through a shoulder injury that would require offseason surgery? The answer is likely both. But the scenario is more evidence that the team's defensive starters could use more relief than they've had in recent years.

Ahmad Brooks. Over the last two seasons it looked as if Brooks - finally - had matured and begun to realize his vast potential. The incident with Divens in June was a relapse and exposes Brooks, the starter at left outside linebacker, to a possible suspension to start the season.

Parys Haralson. He missed the 2012 season with a torn triceps but is back at full strength. He'd be the natural choice to start if Brooks misses any time. The scenario could be similar to the one in 2011 when Haralson played on first and second downs and gave way to then-rookie Aldon Smith in passing situations. In this case, rookie Corey Lemonier could be the rookie who plays on third downs.

Dan Skuta. The 49ers signed him to be the core of their coverage units. Skuta mostly has played inside linebacker in Cincinnati, but the 49ers feel he's a more natural fit on the outside. With Aldon Smith and Brooks out of action this spring, Skuta and Haralson were the starters on the outside.

Corey Lemonier. He's yet another 49ers' draft pick with great length - 34 1/2-inch arms - and he moved really well in the spring when he was often asked to drop into coverage. Now comes the hard part: One-on-one pass-rush drills against Joe Staley, Anthony Davis and others. Smith's skills were immediately apparent during these drills two years ago. Lemonier will be closely watched this summer.

Cam Johnson. His rookie season last year was a washout after he had knee surgery two months after he was drafted. Johnson is powerful and hold the point of attack as well as any linebacker on the team. However, it remains to be seen whether he can remain healthy long enough to show off his skills.

Cornerback
Carlos Rogers. As much as fans would like to see Rogers relieved of his nickel cornerback duties, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio last month didn't seem willing to tinker with the veteran's roles. Rogers has been very good as an outside cornerback but has had trouble keeping pace with slot cornerbacks, which are abundant in the NFC West this year. Rogers' high salary cap figure in 2014 makes him vulnerable moving forward.

Tarell Brown. Brown is entering his contract year and has had no talks about an extension, perhaps signaling the 49ers already have decided to part ways with him in March. With little fanfare, Brown has evolved into a trusted starter and is perhaps the best cover corner on the team right now. At 5-10, 190 pounds, Brown is not the big, aggressive jam cornerback that is all the rage in the NFL. Perhaps that's the direction the 49ers are heading at the position and perhaps it's why Brown doesn't appear to be in their future.

Chris Culliver. For the last time: No, he's not going to be converted into a safety. The 49ers still very much see Culliver as one of their starting cornerbacks for the future. Lapses are to be expected from a young player who played safety at college and who left after his junior season. The 49ers would rather they not come -- in droves -- in the Super Bowl. Is Culliver a starter? The team wants to see more focus and fewer mistakes in his third season. You can bet, however, that opponents will continue to target Culliver the way the Ravens did in February.

Eric Wright. The 49ers gambled on trading for Wright, who was arrested for DUI in Los Angeles earlier this month and who has a history of run-ins with the law. Still, he is a talented, starter-caliber cornerback. With so many of the team's corners - including Wright - headed for free agency in March, the 49ers need to decide which to keep and are giving themselves a number of options.

Nnamdi Asomugha. He's smart, he's motivated and he'll be allowed to play -- mostly -- the type of press coverage at which he excelled in Oakland. He wasn't able to showcase those skills in the non-contact spring practices. He wasn't tested deep, either. Whether Asomugha, 32, still has the wheels to keep pace with 24-year-old wide receivers is one of the more intriguing questions of the summer. If the answer is yes, he'll be more difficult to re-sign in March.

Perrish Cox. He had only a small role on defense last year, entering games as the team's fourth cornerback when opponents -- such at the Packers -- went with four receivers. Cox has a few things going for him. He is the backup nickel/slot cornerback behind Rogers; at 6-0, 200, he is stout and aggressive enough to play press coverage; he also has the size and speed to excel on special teams. As a restricted free agent, he wouldn't be difficult to bring back in 2014.

Tramaine Brock. Little-remembered fact: Brock was leading the NFL in interceptions in 2011 when a broken hand cost him his spot in the lineup. Ok, he only had two interceptions at the time and it was very early in the season. But you have to wonder if Brock, the No. 5 cornerback last season and perhaps the most in danger of being cut this summer, would be in his current position without the injury. Brock may be the most athletic of the group, and he is strong and a good tackler. That makes him a good fit on special teams, which likely is his key to making the roster.

Marcus Cooper. He was the team's final draft draft selection and was a bit of a swing-for-the-fences pick. Cooper didn't play much at Rutgers, but his size and athleticism were too good to pass up. Cooper is 6-2, 195 pounds and are more evidence that the 49ers want a collection of big, physical cornerbacks.

Darryl Morris. The undrafted rookie has elite speed (4.33 40 at his pro day), and it will be interesting if the 49ers give Morris a chance to return punts or kicks this summer. At 5-9, 186 pounds, he does not have the size the 49ers are looking for in their cornerbacks.

Safety
Donte Whitner. He's been the brains of the operation, calling the plays for the secondary the last two years. Like Brown, Whitner has not been offered an extension leading into his contract year, which, given the team's recent history, is a sign he won't be back.

Craig Dahl. Yes, it's a safe bet that first-round draft pick Eric Reid will win the starting job at free safety, but Dahl will begin training camp in that position. If you're still shaking your head on why the 49ers signed Dahl to a free-agent deal, consider how youthful and inexperienced the secondary could be in coming years without Whitner or Rogers. That is, the team could use a smart veteran like Dahl during that transition.

Eric Reid. He's a perfect example of the 49ers' future strategy for keeping their roster strong. They know they will lose good players to free agency. Their plan is to draft their replacements. This was the case at free safety where the 49ers lost one, big-bodied, hard-hitting player in Dashon Goldson and replaced him with the similarly skilled Reid. Look for Reid to line up opposite Whitner this season, perhaps as early as Week 1.

C.J. Spillman. The 49ers have long wondered whether Spillman, one of the team's special teams aces, could be a starter at safety and Spillman, on Twitter, recently wondered why he hasn't been mentioned in the media as a contender for a starting spot. He'll get his chances, but it's difficult to see him leapfrogging Reid and Dahl.

Trenton Robinson. The former sixth-round pick was inactive most of his rookie season last year. Robinson had a good spring and the 49ers are likely to keep him around given Whitner's situation next year.

Michael Thomas. Like Robinson, Thomas is undersized for a safety. Thomas' advantage is that he's smart and also plays nickel cornerback behind Rogers and Cox. He was on the practice squad last year and could land there again this year.

Darcel McBath. McBath is smart, has some playing experience and has a background with secondary coach Ed Donatell. That's why he was the de facto No. 3 safety last season. It's hard to see him landing a spot this year with so many young prospects on the roster.

Ray Ventrone. Ventrone was yet another acquisition that was made with special teams in mind. He's listed as a safety but may be moved to wide receiver, which appears to be a greater need for the 49ers this summer.

- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW 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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