The 49ers are a 3-4 defensive team whose top two defensive players, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, may not be around when the season starts. Both are linebackers. Which raises the question: Is a three-lineman, four-linebacker defense still the best scheme for San Francisco?
One could argue that with Bowman's injury and Smith's troubles, the strength of the defense has switched from the linebacking corps to the defensive line. There, you have stalwarts Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. But there is also Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams at nose tackle, as well as Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Demarcus Dobbs and everyone's favorite experiment, Lawrence Okoye.
Considering that the nose tackle currently comes off the field when the 49ers are in their nickel defense - more than 50 percent of the time - it's hard to imagine some of these players, especially Dorsey and Williams, getting significant playing time in the 49ers' current scheme.
If they switched to a 4-3 or otherwise tinkered with the scheme, the trick would be finding the right combination of linebackers. Patrick Willis, of course, played middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at Ole Miss and would be the natural "Mike" linebacker. Ahmad Brooks could line up at outside linebacker in a spot similar to the one Bruce Irvin plays in Seattle's 4-3 scheme. The 49ers would have to find a third linebacker from the remaining group of players.
Would the 49ers consider this? Probably not. For one, Bowman is making good progress from his ACL. And while he won't be on hand at the beginning of the season, the expectation is that he's back at the midpoint. And while Aldon Smith could miss all of the 2014 season, as The Merc's Tim Kawakami detailed Tuesday, the 49ers have interesting backups in Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier and perhaps a draft pick. They are bringing in Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence, a possibility in the first round or early in the second round, next week.
Furthermore, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio prefers 3-4 defenses and has used that scheme for the bulk of his career. Fangio has said he likes the versatility of having an extra linebacker on the field and that the pass-rush angles are more favorable.
Still, in a scenario in which both Bowman and Smith are not available, you have to wonder if a 3-4 defense puts the 49ers' best defenders on the field.
One additional note. Skuta was the top backup at outside linebacker last season. He battled a foot injury for most of the year, and there was a possibility he could have surgery this offseason. It looks as if he will avoid that. Skuta saw the league's top foot and ankle specialist, Dr. Robert Anderson, earlier this year who diagnosed and treated him for plantar fasciitis in the foot.
-- Matt Barrows