Ranked 13th in the National Football League last year, the San Francisco defense is still a very formidable force to contend with. However, depth and losses via free agency have severely hampered this status if it isn't corrected through the up and coming NFL draft.

The 49er defense has had a lot of changes over the off-season and in some areas it is very delicate in the way of possible injury to a star player could be catastrophe in the waiting. The most impressive statement the San Francisco 49ers did this off-season was to slap the franchise tag on linebacker Julian Peterson.

He is a breakout player with distinct abilities and talent that we can justify in keeping. Others that were resigned on defense include defensive end John Engelberger, safety Ronnie Heard, cornerback Ahmed Plummer and cornerback Jimmy Williams.

Casualties to free agency were defensive tackle Travis Kirschke, defensive end Sean Moran and cornerback Jason Webster. Still left without an offer are linebacker Cornelius Anthony, defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, safety John Keith and cornerback Rashad Holman.

When you look at these players that were casualties to free agency some that seem questionable are Kirschke and Cornelius Anthony as Kirschke was a steady force next to Bryant Young in conjunction with Anthony Adams for most of the season. Cornelius Anthony was a also a steady contributor on our special teams units but then again our special teams unit has been anything but special as of late.

What the San Francisco 49ers need in immediate need are a defensive end, cornerback and a defensive tackle. Looking at the defensive end picture we can see that John Engelberger will probably maintain the starting role next to premier end Andre Carter. However many teams have had some success in running the ball right at him. Andrew Williams also waits in the wings to finally breakout but hasn't proved to be worthy of starting status yet.

Chidi Ahanotu proved to be a reliable replacement for both Carter and Engelberger in the defensive end rotation but Sean Moran was essentially a flop with only mediocre production at best in my opinion. Most every team that we play in the league is sliding their pass protection to Andre Carters side anticipating him as being the elite force. We need someone who is going to apply equal or better pressure on the opposite side.

So far that hasn't really happened with either John Engelberger or now departed Sean Moran. Chidi Ahanotu could still be a legitimate force but the money he's required may be too steep for a salary cap strapped organization like us.

Everyone is waiting for Andrew Williams to breakout including myself but that hasn't materialized in part due to injuries. We must generate a pass rush in unprecedented proportions with an offense that will struggle to score now thanks to so much inexperience in the receiving division. Williams must fine-tune his pass rushing skills and must play a lot better against the run. He only appeared in two whole games throughout the 2003 season.

In a deal to trade wide receiver Terrell Owens to Philadelphia we accepted a veteran defensive end in Brandon Whiting. Brandon Whiting though comes with a baggage of doubts however in that he had to have shoulder surgery performed to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He played through pain all last year as an Eagle making 45 tackles and two sacks.

In this deal the San Francisco 49ers have until September 1st to make a decision on to keep Whiting or send him packing back to Philadelphia for a third round selection from Philadelphia in 2005.

Brandon Whiting must clear medical concerns by the 49er personnel staff in order to be a contributor to us in the 2004 NFL season. Some of the players the 49ers may be interested in at defensive end include: USC's Kenechi Udeze, Alabama's Antwan Odom and Georgia Tech's Tony Hargrove.

The class in defensive ends is weak. So will San Francisco grab a premier one in the first round or take their chances in the second and third? Only USC's Kenechi Udeze warrants first round consideration with Antwan Odom a close second. It will be interesting to see if San Francisco jumps at a premier end or not early in this draft with so many questions surrounding Brandon Whiting.



No.#1 USC's Kenechi Udeze

Udeze is the highest rated defensive end in the draft. If the 49ers do not acquire him at the 16th overall pick in the first round he'll be gone for sure defensive end's are a hot commodity in today's NFL. He has the abilities and talent to contribute right away. He stands 6-3 and weighs 277-pounds and has run a 4.70 in the 40-yard dash. He has been compared to Jacksonville Jaguar defensive end Hugh Douglass.

Against the run: Has physical capability of sealing off the backside and has good change-of-direction skills. He demonstrates great burst in closing on to the ball and is a powerful tackler that rarely misses. He can play too high at times, which allows offensive linemen to get into his pads. Thus he must use hands better to shed blocks.

Pass rush: He lacks elite speed when rushing off the edge, but has good size, quickness and power. Has great body control while turning the corners. He also uses a swim move to effectively turn a corner. Also has exceptional closing burst and has ability to make double-moves to get within the inside of the line.

Initial quickness: Makes up for elite speed with good anticipation and with a quick first step. He does need to work on getting out of his stance with better leverage. Run/pass recognition: Has good instincts and can find the quarterback quickly when turning the corner. He rarely takes himself out of the play by getting too far up field. He has great change-of-direction skills in adjusting to a running play.

Pursuit/tackling: He is a hustler. He displays great speed while in pursuit. He has excellent closing burst and is fundamentally sound as a powerful tackler. He is also noted for being able to force a fumble.

Bottom line: He has the experience after being a three-year starter and is ready to go. In his first two seasons at USC he collected 24 sacks and forced 11 fumbles. His only surgery was on his knee back in 2002, but hasn't missed a game since then. He can even play tackle on passing downs because his quickness would be a mismatch against most guards. He is the best in this draft at this position.



No.#3 Alabama's Antwan Odom

Odom is expected to go in the second round of this draft if not earlier and has drawn interest from the 49ers in a workout at their facility along with Udeze. He stands 6-4 and weighs 278-pounds and ran the 40 in 4.80. He has been compared to Carolina Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker.

Against the run: He is only average in this area but there is plenty of potential. He must improve upon his lower body strength and his technique. He must become a bit more physical and tries to slip blocks too often, which takes him out of the play. He needs to establish consistent leverage and loses power when he's upright because blockers can get into his pads.

Pass rush: He lacks elite speed but reaches full speed rather quickly. Has great body control and can turn a corner sharply. He has explosive closing burst and uses swim club moves effectively. He also has great upper body power but must learn how to use it and has to improve upon his stamina. Initial quickness: Has to be fresh to be exhibited. Anticipates the snap of the ball rather nicely.

Run/pass recognition: Has to start improving in this area because he compromises his assignment at times by getting too far up field. Has a tendency to play too high and can't locate the ball while engaged with a blocker.

Pursuit/tackling: Is very inconsistent in this category. He gets tired easily and will give up on a play from time to time. When he is fresh and working hard, he can be a force to reckon with. He is an explosive tackler that tends to hit too high but brings them down with his power.

Bottom line: Odom enters the draft as a junior and in actuality he should have returned to Alabama and played out his last year there. But his potential as an end is limitless and he is a better pass rusher than he is a run defender. He is very tough to block one-on-one when he's fresh but he must show better effort most of the time. With some refining of technique and his own conditioning he'd be a developing project for the 49ers.

In at cornerback the San Francisco 49ers have Mike Rumph and Ahmed Plummer penciled in as the starters. Mike Rumph improved throughout the 2003 season after multiple injuries hampered Jason Webster and he was allowed to be released and signed with the Atlanta Falcons. The 49ers made some progress though in resigning Jimmy Williams who will compete with another draft pick for the nickel slot and as the third cornerback on the roster.

Drafting a cornerback will be a real necessity especially after the 49ers didn't tender Rashad Holman who is an unrestricted free agent and played fairly well in the lineup. Jimmy Williams a premier kick return specialist and reserve cornerback will get more playing time in the nickel and dime defensive formations. Here are some that the 49ers may attempt to acquire on the first day.



No.#4 USC's Will Poole

Poole is expected to be drafted in the late first round to the second round where San Francisco would be forced to make a tough decision in relation to getting a star wide receiver. Trading down and acquiring more picks at this point is recommended in a draft that is rich in both wide receivers and cornerbacks.

Poole stands 5-11 and weighs 191-pounds and ran the 40 in 4.49. He has been compared to Tennessee Titan's Samari Rolle. This is an athlete that has enormous potential and ability to go a long ways in the NFL.

Coverage skills: He is very fluid with smooth hips and displays more quickness than pure speed. He can change direction without losing hardly any speed and has very good instincts.

He gets a great break on the ball and is at his best when coming forward. Has above-average leaping ability and is able to read a quarterback's eyes in both man-to-man coverage and zone. He also has a nice mean streak and is very physical but has inconsistencies in bump-and-run coverage.

Run/pass recognition: Takes probably too many gambles in order to try and make a big play. He also lacks a second gear to recover after getting caught out of position. Closing speed: Has an explosive first step and accelerates while moving forward covering a lot of ground at the same time. He lacks great speed and will struggle to turn and run with the fastest NFL wide receivers.

Ball skills: He does have soft hands and will make the interception when in position. Has great body control to adjust to the pass while it is in flight and can snap a ball out of the air with his great leaping ability.

Run support: Is very aggressive and unafraid to sacrifice his body. He gets great pop at the point of contact and changes direction instantly to make tackles in the open field. He shows ability to cause fumbles as well.

Bottom line: Poole violated team rules while in Boston College and was suspended but nothing else since 2001 has tainted his image. He is best in a zone-dominant scheme but has enough physical skills to still manage man-to-man. He has potential to return punts and should develop well with most teams.



No.#8 UCLA's Matt Ware

Matt Ware is another corner that San Francisco will look at to compete in their nickel and dime formations. Finding someone to compliment depth in the secondary will be a priority for the 49ers especially with the departure of Jason Webster and the lack of interest in Rashad Holman.

Ware stands 6-2 and weighs 207-pounds and ran the 40 in 4.50. He has been compared to Philadelphia's Bobby Taylor. He is expected to be drafted somewhere within the second round making him a better target than Will Poole.

Coverage skills: He has elite size for a corner and can play safety as well. He has long arms and has a terrific wingspan. He matches up well against tall receivers and shows smooth hip movements in and out of his cuts. He seems more able to cover man-to-man than zone and lacks elite speed. He is quick though and great athleticism that will go far in the NFL. He has excellent ball skills and knocks down a lot of passes with his long arms.

Run/pass recognition: He has good intelligence just is raw right now. He has played both corner and safety positions and must learn to play "off" coverage as a cornerback. He bites some on play fakes and lacks the speed to recover against NFL receivers.

Closing speed: Has a good burst while coming forward and is quick. He closes well in run support and does struggle to turn and run with some receivers. He is smooth in his turns but lacks elite speed.

Ball skills: Has good instincts and has good hands. Has good leaping ability against jump balls in the end zone. He has experience at wide receiver and as a return man. Has good concentration while going for an interception.

Run support: he is tough and aggressive and often leads with his shoulder, which leads to failure in wrapping up his opponent. He must improve upon his open-field tackling but he has great size and strength all rolled into one.

Bottom line: He is very versatile having played corner, safety, wide receiver return man and punt return man. He will be a solid man-to-man cornerback and is a great developmental project that the 49ers could employ.

Last but not least the position at defensive tackle remains a big question mark as well as veteran Pro Bowler Bryant Young becomes the last icon of the last 49er Super Bowl on the team. The loss of Travis Kirschke has left a big void on the line that bleeds the line of depth. Rookie Anthony Adams will see more playing time having played in 14 games last year and starting one of them. The problem with Adams as you'll remember is that he wears down quickly and probably is best suited to just being a rotating tackle at best.

The 49ers will be looking for a tackle that can be groomed to take Bryant Young's place in just a few years. The front four had tremendous failures last season in providing enough pressure to make a difference.



No.#8 UCLA's Rodney Leisle

In order for the 49ers to be successful in the league they must be able to knock an offense right off the filed in a minimal amount of time. The front four on defense needs to be formidable and with the coming of more 3-4 alignments under defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, they need to be interchangeable.

Leisle stands 6-3 and weighs 288-pounds. He ran the 40 in 5.10 and he's been compared to the great John Parrella of the Oakland Raiders. Having someone that fits that mold will be beneficial to us as the season comes and goes.

Against the run: He is a high-energy player with a very tough mentality. He comes out of his stance low and plays with excellent leverage. He is technically sound and disciplined and is able to handle most anything. Strong lower body and short arms and needs to find a way to get better against the run.

Pass rush: Will not make a huge impact, as he doesn't have elite speed. He does have enough agility to do spin moves and is relentless on plays. He also lacks a closing burst in getting to the quarterback. Initial quickness: Doesn't show explosiveness and doesn't get great penetration on a consistent basis. Run/pass recognition. Has great awareness.

Pursuit/tackling: Leisle is an overachiever and has very little upside. He is a productive and solid all the way around player. He shows good power and technique but might be best suited to be in a 3-4 alignment. Thus the 49er interest in this area with Robinson at the helm.



No.#9 LSU's Chad Lavalais

Chad is another defensive tackle that doesn't have great size but will prosper on a team that wants its tackles to be lightening quickly and to provide pressure on the quarterback. He stands 6-1 and weighs 294-pounds and ran the 40 in 5.06. He has been compared to Minnesota Viking Chris Hovan. He is expected to go somewhere in the late second to third round.

Against the run: He plays with a sound technique and excels in a one-gap type scheme. He has great ability to penetrate and good initial quickness. He lacks the size to hold his ground in a two-gap scheme. He needs to use his hands better and is dominated by bigger offensive linemen.

Pass rush: Never gives up until he reaches the quarterback. Has great first step quickness and gets consistent penetration. Struggles to get off blocks because of his size. Initial quickness: Comes off the ball low and hard, and has great anticipation and initial burst.

Run/pass recognition: Is improving on not getting caught out of position and at times will get too far up-field and take himself out of a play. He does do a great job at being able to sniff out screens that are coming up. Pursuit/tackling: He is relentless in pursuit and has a great motor. Good power as a tackler and is capable of forcing fumbles.

Bottom line: He has a great opportunity to become a solid interior pass rusher. He needs to be drafted by a team that uses a one-gap scheme that tailors to athletic ability and quickness over size. Our team could be that team as pressure from our front four is almost non-existent.

So the San Francisco 49ers prepare for the big two days in the up and coming NFL draft 2004. There are many other prospects the 49ers are looking at and these are but a few on defenses that they are looking closely at. Rather we go with speed or bulk remains to be seen, but with a 3-4 defense being shown at least a third of the time athleticism will be critical. I'm excited with the up and coming draft, I hope we can trade down and acquire more picks.

The building blocks need to be put in place. We've already become lighter and younger all in one this off-season. We have a new and revised plan in getting salary cap healthy, something we've heard before and hopefully they'll stir the right formula this time around.