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January 27, 2014
Look ahead: Transition year on the 49ers' defensive line


Over the next few weeks, I'll take a position-by-position look at the 49ers roster with an eye on the upcoming season and beyond. We'll start with the defensive line and work our way backward:

Under contract for 2014: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Lawrence Okoye, Mike Purcell, Christian Tupou

Pending free agents: Demarcus Dobbs (restricted free agent).

Outlook: Smith will turn 35 during the upcoming season while McDonald will turn 30. The 49ers already began the rejuvenation process along the line by drafting Carradine and Dial, although both remain question marks after mostly sitting out their rookie years with injuries. The 49ers did, however, get excellent production from another young player, Jerod-Eddie, who went undrafted in 2012. He ended up playing 36 percent of the team's snaps while Dobbs played 28 percent. This allowed Smith and McDonald more rest than they had the previous two seasons. Smith, for example, played one and half fewer games in 2012 but had 40 more snaps that season than he did in 2013.

Dorsey, a free agent pickup in 2013, played very well in the second half of the season. Williams began the year at nose tackle but suffered a broken ankle in Week 2. He is expected to make a full recovery and to be ready for training camp. This means that there will be a lot of depth - Dial also can line up there -- at nose tackle, a position that was on the field only about 41 percent of the time in 2013. Given their reinforcements, the 49ers are likely to offer Dobbs the lowest tender possible for an unrestricted free agent. He was very good on special teams in 2013 but the team will be eager to work its draft picks into the defensive rotation.

Youth Watch: During the offseason, all eyes will be on Carradine, who was supposed to provide pass-rush relief late in 2013 but who instead was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. That's partly because at that point he was not going to surpass Jerod-Eddie or Dobbs (or Dial) on the depth chart. But the 49ers also said that they thought it was prudent to give Carradine's ACL injury, which occurred in November 2012, more time to heal. The 49ers insisted the rookie did not suffer a setback in his rehabilitation.

Youth Watch II: The most intriguing lineman may be former discus thrower, Okoye. He's the most physically impressive of the group - his feats in the weight room have impressed even the veterans - and he's proven to be smart, dedicated and a quick study. Okoye, who spent the season on injured reserve, still has a steep learning curve ahead. But it will be interesting to see what kind of steps he took between his rookie year, when he donned a football helmet for the first time, and the start of the 2014 offseason. That position coach Jim Tomsula appears to be returning is a big plus for Okoye's development.

Bottom line: Look for the 49ers to continue transitioning between Smith, who has been the lynchpin of the defensive line, and the youth they have been collecting for the last two seasons. Given the collection of young players, it is unlikely that they use a top draft pick or find a notable free agent at the position.

- 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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