Defensive line: Two-way players fight for roles

Defensive line: Two-way players fight for roles
July 9, 2012, 3:58 pm
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The 49ers opened the 2011 regular season with seven defensive linemen. And we're not even counting Aldon Smith, who played mostly defensive end and only a few snaps of outside linebacker a year ago.The organization kept around three young defensive linemen because they saw potential and did not want to close the door on any of the players. Now, it's time to show that potential, as the 49ers might look to form more of a rotation to give the starters occasional breaks.Defensive line
The starting defensive line could very well be the strength of the 49ers. Right end Justin Smith has been the team's best player the past two seasons. He was chosen as the winner of the Bill Walsh Award, which the coaches present to the team's MVP.On the other side, left end Ray McDonald had his breakout season in his first year as a starter. Both Smith and McDonald played a lot. Smith was third in the NFL among defensive linemen, playing 91.1 percent of the defensive snaps. McDonald was 16th at 83.5 percent.Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga was a big reason the 49ers' run defense was tops in the league. Where the 49ers could use more production is from the players behind the regulars.Ricky Jean Francois showed is versatility as the first defensive lineman off the sideline. He filled in admirably for Sopoaga when he missed a game with a staph infection. Jean Francois also handles backup duties about both end positions.Last season, the 49ers kept Will Tukuafu, Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams on their regular-season roster to develop. Tukuafu's season ended early due to a wrist injury.
Coincidentally, two of those linemen expanded their resumes this offseason with extensive work on the offensive side of the ball. Tukuafu worked with the second team at left end, while Dobbs worked on the second unit at right end. In addition, Tukuafu spent a good share of time at fullback and Dobbs got a lot of work at tight end."There is a fine line there to where a guy has to have a primary position and that's how he makes the team," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "And then if he can contribute in a secondary role, he does so that way. So, we have to be careful that we don't spread them too thin and they don't master a position on either side and then they don't end up making the team."Williams opens camp as the No. 3 nose tackle. Williams made the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie from Notre Dame last season but did not suit up for a game.
The 49ers added three undrafted rookies who will be scrambling for a potential spot on the practice squad: Tony Jerod-Eddie (Texas A&M), Patrick Butrym (Wisconsin), and Matthew Masifilo, who joined the offseason program in time for the mandatory minicamp due to Stanford's late graduation.