Maiocco: Uncertainty abounds on 49ers' defense


Maiocco: Uncertainty abounds on 49ers' defense

Follow @MaioccoCSN
Matt MaioccoCSNBayArea.com

They have no playbook, thus they have not been getting together in large numbers during the NFL lockout.The 49ers' defense includes four starters -- and one potential starter -- up for free agency. The defense has been the strength of a team that has not reached the playoffs since 2002, yet there is a lot of uncertainty on that side of the ball for the 49ers.
During the lockout, most of the attention has been on the 49ers' offense. Twenty-five offensive players got together at San Jose State over a two-week period of work, known as "Camp Alex." Unsigned quarterback Alex Smith received a copy of the playbook from coach Jim Harbaugh and has served as an adjunct to the coaching staff during the lockout.
Meanwhile, defensive players have been largely working out on their own, waiting for the lockout to end and the work to begin.
While the 49ers' offense appears largely set, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the defense for a change.The 49ers are prepared to lose nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and outside linebacker Manny Lawson in free agency. If they can re-sign defensive end Ray McDonald, the 49ers appear set with Isaac Sopoaga moving back to nose tackle, and McDonald taking over as a starter at left defensive end. The 49ers plan for rookie Aldon Smith to slide into the lineup at weak outside linebacker, where his primary duty will be to get after the quarterback.The 49ers expressed a desire to re-sign veteran Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, but the club also selected NaVorro Bowman a year ago in the third round to eventually team with Patrick Willis on the inside.The most interesting decisions will occur in the 49ers' secondary. The team selected cornerback Chris Culliver in the third round. Nate Clements and Shawntae Spencer are under contract, but the 49ers were not satisfied with Clements' coverage or Spencer's tackling last season.
If the 49ers make a big splash in free agency, it figures to be with an eye on cornerbacks with such players as Nnamdi Asomugha, Johnathan Joseph, Ike Taylor, Richard Marshall and Antonio Cromartie set to hit the market.Safety is another interesting spot for the 49ers. Their best defensive back, Dashon Goldson, is scheduled for unrestricted free agency. He'll get a nice contract. But will the 49ers go high enough to retain him?In Trent Baalke's first draft, the 49ers invested a second-round pick on Taylor Mays. Certainly, Baalke envisions Mays as a starter sooner than later. The 49ers' coaching staff appears to be keeping an open mind about all the players."This is a young player, going into Year 2," 49ers defensive backs coach Ed Donatell said this offseason of Mays. "That's when a lot of guys spike, especially when you're a high-profile guy like he was. If you think about that first year, it's a whirlwind. He got some valuable playing time. I see a lot of traits. He should spike in this system."Mays started six games at safety last season, but the previous coaching staff determined he was not yet ready to handle the coverage aspects of the job. Reggie Smith started the final seven games after replacing Mays in the lineup, and he was generally solid.It's also possible the 49ers could shift Culliver to safety if Goldson does not return.The defensive coaching staff is going to be working against the clock to figure all this out -- and determine the best way to improve the 49ers' No. 24 ranking against the pass from a year ago.Do not expect new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to try to make the 49ers' defense something it is not. Would he like to employ a pressure defense like what his longtime associate Dom Capers has done in Green Bay?"We'd like to," Fangio said this offseason. "He (Capers) fell into two really good cover corners (Tramon Williams and Sam Shields) besides (Charles) Woodson. So that allows you to be comfortable to be more of a pressure team and not have to be kind of tricking them all of the time. You do what your players allow you to do."Donatell said Fangio will adapt to the players on the 49ers' defense and he will play to their strengths."He's going to do what fits," Donatell said. "He's going to do the amount (of blitzing) he has to do for us to be successful. And I don't know what that is right now. And he doesn't, either. We haven't put our hands on our players."The biggest thing, he is great at playing the hand he has," Donatell said of Fangio. "And there's great evidence of what he was able to do at Stanford in one year. He is a sharp guy at adjusting to what he has. You saw him go right to college football, figure it out and have a great year."

Report: Former No. 3 overall pick works out for 49ers


Report: Former No. 3 overall pick works out for 49ers

The 49ers appear to have plenty of depth along their front seven, but the team brought in three defensive linemen for workouts on Tuesday, according to a source.

One of those players is reportedly Tyson Jackson, the No. 3 overall pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009. The identities of the other two players were not immediately known.

Jackson has been without a team since the Falcons released him in March with two years and $8.5 million remaining on his contract. His workout with the 49ers was reported by the NFL Network. He also worked out recently with the Los Angeles Rams.

Jackson, 31, spent his first five season in Kansas City before playing three years with the Falcons. He appeared in all 16 games last season, starting seven times, and recorded 13 tackles and no sacks.

The 49ers have an abundance of defensive linemen, or players capable of rushing the passer from a position along the defensive line, such as DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, Earl Mitchell, Elvis Dumervil, Aaron Lynch, Chris Jones, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, Ronald Blair and D.J. Jones.

Veterans most vulnerable to losing roster spots with 49ers


Veterans most vulnerable to losing roster spots with 49ers

At the midway point of the 49ers’ exhibition season, there continues to be a lot of competition and more than a handful of veterans who have yet to lock down roster spots.

“I can tell you, it’s going to be real tough to cut it down to 53,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said last week. “We’re going to need all this game and practices to evaluate that.”

Here are the 49ers’ returning veteran players whose roster spots appear to be the most vulnerable with two weeks of practices and two exhibition games remaining to prove themselves:

OLB Ahmad Brooks
Brooks’ $4.45 million base salary is not much of a concern, considering the team is still $65.2 million under the salary cap. The number that factors into this decision the most is 33. That’s Brooks’ age.

If he is not clearly better than 23-year-old Eli Harold at the SAM linebacker position, the 49ers might want to keep the younger player to develop. Brooks is not talked about for his locker-room presence, so this decision will be made solely for what he does on the field and what he is expected to give the team in the future.

“You want to know who’s got the most upside and things like that,” Shanahan said. “Who’s going to be better throughout the year, if given the opportunity. But you also want to know who when it’s all said and done who’s going to affect your win-loss record the most. Those are the things that I look at personally. You don’t always want to think who’s the best guy for Week 1. Who’s the best guy for the 2017 49ers?”

OG Zane Beadles
Beadles is currently working with the first-team offense, but his spot on the roster remains vulnerable. The 49ers’ decision-makers do not seem impressed with their offensive guards. The 49ers could look to pick up a guard from another team before the start of the season.

The jury is still out on Joshua Garnett, who had a good start to camp. But his play dropped off in Week 2 – perhaps because of the knee injury that required a procedure to clean up cartilage. Garnett may not be available for the start of the regular season.

Also, the 49ers may want to hold onto undrafted rookie lineman Erik Magnuson, who has a bigger upside than Beadles with youth, size and ability to play guard and center.

NT Quinton Dial
Earl Mitchell appears locked-in as the 49ers’ starting nose tackle. The 49ers also seem to have high hopes for rookie D.J. Jones. It’s unclear where that leaves Dial, who does not appear to be a great fit for the 49ers’ new 4-3 scheme.

Dial should be a starter in the NFL. But he is better-suited to be positioned in a 3-4 scheme, using his strength and power as a two-gap player rather than adapt to a one-gap scheme in which quickness and agility are the main requirements.

DE Aaron Lynch
Before sustaining an ankle injury, Lynch had done everything the 49ers wanted of him – including reporting to camp at the weight that was ordered. Lynch also looked very good in the 49ers’ exhibition opener, recording two sacks against Kansas City.

But Lynch’s spot is not guaranteed, by any means. Arik Armstead, Elvis Dumervil, Ronald Blair and rookie Pita Taumoepenu all can play similar roles. If Lynch does not eat well or maintain his conditioning while rehabbing from his ankle injury, he could erase all of the positive steps he took at the beginning of camp.

TE Vance McDonald
The onus was on McDonald at the beginning of camp to win his way onto the team. His solid play has increased his odds of a roster spot, but it is not a sure thing. This is a position where all the incumbents – McDonald, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell -- face stiff challenges.

George Kittle will definitely be on the team. Blocking specialist Logan Paulsen and rookie Cole Hikutini are also in the mix. Hikutini does not appear ready to be a contributor this season. If they waive him with hopes of placing him on the practice squad, it seems unlikely another team would claim him for their 53-man roster. But is that a chance the 49ers are willing to take?

DE Tank Carradine
Carradine appears to be on solid footing at the 49ers’ big-end position, considering he remains on the first-team defense despite the addition of Solomon Thomas, the No. 3 overall selection. But it seems to be only a matter of time before Thomas takes on a greater role. Carradine could still be kept around as a backup.

Ronald Blair, a fifth-round draft pick in 2016, was buried on the depth chart at the beginning of camp. And a pulled groin muscle that has kept him out of action for more than a week does not help is cause, either.