49ers training camp preview: Defensive line

49ers training camp preview: Defensive line
July 22, 2014, 7:30 am
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This appears to be time for the 49ers to work some younger players into more prominent roles.
Matt Maiocco

Editor’s note: Matt Maiocco will be providing position-by-position breakdowns each day leading up to 49ers training camp. The full squad will report on Wednesday, with the first practice day scheduled for Thursday. In this installment, Matt focuses on the defensive line.

Who they have: Justin Smith, Tank Carradine, Glenn Dorsey, Ray McDonald, Ian Williams, Quinton Dial, Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Lawrence Okoye, Mike Purcell, Kaleb Ramsey.

Who they lost: None.

Looking back: The 49ers sustained a major blow in Week 2 when starting nose tackle Ian Williams was lost for the season due to a broken lower leg on a then-legal block from Seattle guard J.R. Sweezy. (The NFL banned the rolling in-line block from the backside this offseason.)

Veteran Glenn Dorsey found his niche in the middle of the 49ers’ defense on early downs. He was replaced in nickel situations by an extra defensive back.

Justin Smith had another solid season along the 49ers’ defensive line, but he was not as stout against the run as in years past. Pro Football Focus graded him with a negative grade against the run.

In 2012, Smith missed the final 2 ½ games of the regular season with a torn triceps tendon. He still was on the field for a total of 77.4 percent of the 49ers' defensive snaps. In 2013, Smith did not miss a snap due to injury. Yet, his playing time dropped to 73.3 percent.

The 49ers used of a rotation along the defensive line with Jerod-Eddie and Dobbs accounting for a combined 680 snaps to help keep Smith and McDonald fresh throughout the season.

Overall outlook: Smith turns 35 in September, and he is not expected to be the dominant force he has been for much of his 13 NFL seasons. So this appears to be time for the 49ers to work some younger players into more prominent roles.

Carradine, a second-round pick in 2013 who made no impact as a rookie due to a knee injury he sustained in his final season at Florida State, is healthy and should be ready to handle some responsibility. Dial also enters his second season with a chance to carve out a role as a rotational player.

Williams opened training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list, but he should return at close to 100 percent and push for playing time behind Dorsey. Jerod-Eddie and Dobbs supply the 49ers with more proven depth.

[RELATED: Williams joins list of 49ers on PUP or NFI]

Camp competition: The 49ers have typically gone with six defensive linemen on their 53-man roster, so that lends itself to a lot of competition with this deep unit.

Carradine’s development is a big key for the defense. He has the ability to stay on the field in pass-rush situations. Previously, Smith and McDonald were the only three-down linemen on the 49ers’ roster.

While the 49ers are fully expected to have the same starting unit as last season, there is a little pressure on McDonald to live up to his $3.5 million salary with a strong training camp. McDonald did not make as many plays last year as he did during the 2012 season.

Jerrod-Eddie, Dobbs and Dial are in competition for roster spots. Dobbs’ versatility on special teams is an advantage. Okoye is still learning how to play football, but his unique potential on special teams is his best hope at securing a job.