Offseason Defensive End Depth

Feb 22, 2013 at 9:05 PM

The NFL Combine starts tomorrow (Feb 23), which means the NFL Draft is right around the corner. The 49ers don't have any glaring needs for their starting positions, unless they lose Dashon Goldson. Their biggest area of need is depth on the defensive line, and to groom a replacement for Justin Smith.

I'm a firm believer that games are won and lost in the trenches. The 49ers didn't do a good job of rotating players on their defensive line. Last season, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith were both in the top 5 of number of snaps by defensive players. McDonald and Smith were #3 and #4, respectively. The lack of depth compounded with Justin Smith's injury negatively affected the defense at the end of the season. The 49ers defense was only able to generate 4 sacks in the post season. The lack of depth also caused the secondary to give up around 100 yards more per game than their regular season average.

Fortunately the 49ers currently hold 11 draft picks in the upcoming Draft. They are speculated to get 3 more picks as compensation, due to losing players in free agency. Even more picks could be generated by trading Alex Smith. There are a few prospects that have the potential to add depth and eventually be groomed to be Justin Smith's successor. Datone Jones of UCLA, Margus Hunt of Souther Methodist, and Devin Taylor of South Carolina are players the 49ers could draft in the first three rounds.

Datone Jones is 6'4" and 280 pounds. Jones is expected to be drafted late in the first round. Jones has a dedication to the weight room and caught scouts attention leading up to the Senior Bowl. On the practice field he continued to impress coaches and scouts. During the Bowl game he was able to overpower solid tackles like Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner. If his stock continues to rise with a good Combine performance, he may not be around when the 49ers draft at #31. However, if the 49ers really like him, they can use some of their draft picks to move up and get him.

Margus Hunt is 6'8" and 277 pounds. Hunt is expected to be drafted in the second or third round. He is an incredible athlete with long arms and an 82 inch wingspan. Margus uses his size to tie up defenders and stuff the run game. Hunt is being described as being raw, because he hasn't been playing football for very long. The native Estonian is a gold medal winning track star. He won the medals for shot put and discus at Beijing in 2006, at the World Junior Championships. Despite being raw, Hunt produces in big games. He forced two fumbles and had two sacks in SMU's bowl game. He's a player with a high ceiling, who could end up being a bargain, if the 49ers can get him in the second or third round.

Devin Taylor is 6'7" and 275 pounds. Taylor is expected to be drafted in the third or fourth round. Like Hunt, Taylor is another great athlete with long arms. Despite being shorter, Taylor has an 87 inch wingspan. He had a good sophomore year with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. Since then his production has dropped throughout his senior year. The drop in production is a red flag, but good coaching could turn him around. I'm sure the 49ers defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula, is up to the task.

I'm sure the 49ers will address the issue in the draft, but they could also look to free agency to add depth. The most intriguing defensive end that will be up for grabs is Cincinnati's Michael Johnson. Johnson would not only give depth, but could be in constant rotation with McDonald and Smith. He was drafted in the 3rd round because scouts said he was raw. Johnson has turned himself into a rare talent. He's great at stopping the run and recorded 11.5 sacks last year. The Bengals are currently trying to re-sign Johnson, but I hope he hits the open market on March 12th. Anything can happen with the Bengals, they thought Justin Smith was a bust.

I hope to see talent added at the defensive end position during the draft and free agency. Just adding depth will help the 49ers current players stay fresh through the post season. Adding a player who can soak up double teams or get to the QB, will increase the linebackers production and help out the secondary.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • darin
    good article nice break down.
    Feb 25, 2013 at 8:19 AM
    Response: Thank you Darin.
  • Derek
    I think Michael Johnson from Bengals is going to end up playing 3-4 OLB, not 3-4 DE.
    Feb 23, 2013 at 11:02 AM
    Response: Johnson could probably stand up or play with his hand on the ground. I'm keeping in mind the 49ers aren't in a 3-4 the entire game. They still use 4 man fronts. Thank you for your comment.
  • Frank
    We need DL depth, "bigs" who can play inside and out. The guys you mentioned are undersized for Fangio's 3-4. There's no Justin SMith's out there...guys @ 290 who can get the kind of push he does. Our DL got stymied in part because of his injury, but also because we didn't have quality depth. There's no confidence in the 2nd string guys & that has to change. The fix? Bring in a offset Sopoaga and potentially RJF. Best guy IMHO is Randy Starks, a "big" who can play anywhere on the DL. No need for another "pure" NT...not when Sopoaga played something like 30% of the snaps. I'm thinking Jenkins, Hankins, Jesse Williams, Shariff, etc. All those guys have the size, strength and versatility we need. Fangio needs guys he can plug-in and be confident there's little to no fall-off from his there are consistent opportunties for Smith and Brooks to pressure the QB & less stress on our secondary. DL snaps have added up...and in 2012, they wore down at the end. Yes, it was exacerbated by JS's injury, but that just highlighted our lack of quality depth.
    Feb 23, 2013 at 7:17 AM
    Response: All of the mentioned, potential, draft picks have a frame that allows them to put on weight. They are already close to Justin Smith's weight. Keep in mind, Smith weighed 267 pounds when the Bengals drafted him in 2001. I'm hoping the 49ers draft Margus Hunt, he's an amazing athlete? Hunt had a great Bowl game and a great Combine performance. The 49ers have enough draft picks to get some good depth. To your point, it would also be nice to get some guys who can play multiple positions. Thank you for your comment.

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