49ers position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line

49ers position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line
July 20, 2013, 9:45 am
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Justin Smith is entering his sixth season with the 49ers and 13th overall. (USA TODAY IMAGES)


Glenn Dorsey is expected to take over for Isaac Sopoaga at nose tackle. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Editor's note: Insider Matt Maiocco will be providing position-by-position breakdowns each day leading up to 49ers training camp. The rookies reported Friday, with the veterans scheduled to follow on Wednesday. Today, Matt focuses on the defensive line.

Who they have: LDT Ray McDonald, NT Glenn Dorsey, RDT Justin Smith, Tank Carradine, Ian Williams, Will Tukuafu, Demarcus Dobbs, Quinton Dial, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Lamar Divens, Lawrence Okoye, Mike Purcell

Who they lost: Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean Francois

Looking back: The 49ers opened last season with seven defensive linemen, including Tukuafu and Dobbs, who also had roles on offense. When Dobbs went on injured reserve with a knee injury, the 49ers promoted Jerod-Eddie from the practice squad. If anyone needed evidence to support the argument that Smith is the most-important player on defense, just look at how the 49ers' fortunes changed with his partially torn triceps tendon late in the season. In the first 13 1/2 games with a healthy Smith, the 49ers' pass defense allowed 183.0 yards passing per game and a passer rating of 74.6. After Smith's injury, the 49ers averaged 300 yards passing per game, including the playoffs when he returned at far-less than full strength. The opposition passer rating rose to 102.1. McDonald recorded only 2.5 sacks as an every-down player, but he did another strong all-around job. Sopoaga played solely in the 49ers' base defense. Jean Francois was the only other defensive lineman that won the confidence of the coaching staff to be included in the rotation.

Overall outlook: Despite losing two linemen in free agency, the 49ers enter camp with more depth than they've had in recent seasons. McDonald and Smith return as every-down players, and the 49ers added veteran free agent Dorsey as the presumptive starter at nose tackle. Carradine (knee) and Dial (toe) are expected to return at some point in training camp from injuries that kept them out of the entire offseason program. Carradine, a second-round pick, has an opportunity to play a dozen snaps a game in pass-rush situations. The 49ers made a curious move in the offseason to sign Williams to a contract extension. Despite being inactive for most of his first two NFL seasons, the 49ers awarded Williams a $1 million bonus with a contract extension.

Camp competition: Dial, Tukuafu, Dobbs and Jerod-Eddie might be competing for two spots on the 53-man roster. Dial, a fifth-round draft pick, will get a long look and is likely to make the team. The most intriguing player on the roster is Okoye, the British rugby player-turned-Olympic discus finalist. He is the best athlete on the team but he is raw as an oyster when it comes to playing American football. If he sticks with it, he is a strong candidate for the practice squad.