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Despite having drafted for defense with nine out of their last ten 1st and 2nd round selctions, the 49ers will need to draft for defense once again this year. Free agency, the loss of Jamie Winborn, a lack of consistency on the defensive line, and the poor play of Zach Bronson threaten to discount the strides we've made in recent years.
Although the linebackers, the strength of our defense, will likely return intact, they may do so relectuant, battered, and bruised. The Julian Peterson contract situation looms over Santa Clara like a thundercloud. Terry Donahue will likely franchise Peterson should the two sides fail to reach an agreement, which solves the problem until we have to franchise him again next year. The potential loss of Jamie Winborn, due to an atypical nerve injury, has devastating implications. A linebacking crew of Peterson, Smith, Ulbrich, Winborn, Rasheed, and Moore is as deep and solid as they come. With Winborn and Rasheed injury prone, and Peterson in limbo every year due to his contract status, the prospect of losing our three fastest linebackers becomes a very real concern.
After years of looking for cornerbacks, we finally found a good pair. Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph may not be shut-down corners, but they're about as solid a tandem as you'll find anywhere. Unfortunately, it looks like Plummer wants to play in the Midwest. Losing Plummer will be a significant setback, as the 49ers will have to spend another high draft pick to replace him, and watch him play through another miserable rookie season with no assurances he'll pan out. Jason Webster is slightly overmatched as a 2nd corner, but makes a great 3rd corner, and we would do well to have him back.
The defensive line suffers from an overdose of mediocrity. Despite slipping from 12.5 sacks in 2002 to 6.5 last season, Andre Carter remains the type of speed pass-rusher that teams covet off the edge. The two-headed monster of John Engelberger and Chidi Ahanatou produced 8.5 sacks, which is average production from the defensive end position, but leaves something to be desired. Engelberger, who may leave in free agency, is undersized and survives on grit, not natural ability. He's not heavy enough to hold the point of attack. A Mark Madsen if you will, but not a centerpiece by any stretch. Not a starter. Ahanatou and Williams are 3rd down pass rushers at best. Sooner or later the 49ers will need to address the left end position.
But not before they address the interior of their line. Once again, the problem isn't easy to detect. Bryant Young played admirably—29 tackles, 3.5 sacks. Anthony Adams is relentless and pursues well down the line of scrimmage. Travis Kirshke was an unexpected surprise and played solid run defense. But where was the push? The 49ers need a masher. A 360-pound space eater. Someone who's going to take on two blockers and not give up an inch. Someone who's going to push the pocket back on passing downs and force the quarterback to move three steps to his left. Someone who can help us control the line of scrimmage.
The final problem is Zach Bronson. Two years ago he was great, but since returning from his injury, he's been a catastrophe. His line last year: 42 tackles, 1 interception, no sacks, no forced fumbles, 2 passes defensed and an assortment of ill-timed jumps and miscalculated angles. My grandmother could go over the middle on him without worrying about getting hit.
The state of the defense is far more consequential than the return of Terrell Owens. We need an upgrade at three defensive positions (tackle, end, and safety), four if we lose Plummer, before we have any chance of becoming a top ten defense. Our linebacking position is not as strong as it was a year ago. Even if we spend the majority of our high draft picks on defense, there is a good chance that we will not be as good as last year's 13th ranked unit.
Offenses are easier to rebuild than defenses. Offenses can survive with good play-calling, precise routes, a good sense of timing, and an ability to take advantage of defensive weaknesses. Kansas City has performed phenominally on offense the last two seasons despite having an anonymous receiving corps. Ditto for New England despite a below average running game and no star receivers. The 49ers sole offensive draft pick in the 1st or 2nd rounds of the last four drafts has been Kwame Harris, and yet we still managed to rank 5th in the league in yardage.
The defense is a whole other story. There's no substitute for talent on this side of the ball. Despite drafting almost exclusively for defense the last four years, we're still by and large an average defense. Good defenses are much, much more difficult to create than good offenses. The 49ers should continue to draft for defense, at least until they become a top 10 unit, and then quickly add the necessary offensive pieces.