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49ers Desperate for playmaker at defensive end

Feb 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM

The salary cap strangulation has made San Francisco a team desperate to find a pass rushing specialist as production from the defensive ends has been anything but glamorous, we continue to struggle in finding a legitimate threat at this position.

Defense has been the hallmark of our vulnerability all season the need to establish a big time playmaker at the end position has not gone as planned. In the 2000 NFL Draft we identified the areas of need and brought in First round pick linebacker Julian Peterson and Second round pick defensive end John Engelberger both have made huge strides in their overall development and are a foundation in which to build on.

The 49er’s started the 2000 season in an uneasy situation being very thin in all depth areas and having to start as many as five rookies on defense in most games throughout the season was a definite challenge.

Young, raw rookie talent was what we had to turn to in an era when the thought of having high priced free agents to man every defensive position was a ideal of the past due to the inflation of individuals salaries the salary cap has turned that into an after-thought.

To have a better understanding of what happened to our young defense in 2000 all you need to do is turn back to the very first six games, the 49er’s surrendered 193 points, 2,472 total yards, 1,773 passing yards, 699 rushing yards and totaled only seven sacks.

This was the reality when you are forced to break in so many rookies all at once. However the true mentality to this madness was the undeniable need for these rookies to play and gain enough experience for them to play at a higher standard later on into the season and beyond.

Over the final six games of the season, the defense showed remarkable improvement in every phase of their game plan as they allowed a total of 99 points, 1,656 total yards, 1,050 passing yards, 606 rushing yards and posted 20 sacks.

The astonishing turnaround was a result of rookies all coming together and establishing the lines of communication and teamwork needed to obtain a positive and practical outcome. Defensive Ends in the NFL are the fear masters in the league as they are supposed to put the fear of God into every quarterback that drops back or decides to run the ball because they realize they will be punished in one form or another physically.

2000, 2nd Round Draft Pick John Engelberger from Virginia Tech was the most productive defensive end this season in his debut outing, I was most impressed with his ability to always be around the ball in play in every aspect of the game. He shows intensity and quickness as well as strength, he stands 6-4 and weighs 260 pounds.

John had 28 tackles and three sacks on the season starting 13 out of 16 games, his continued development is crucial to solidifying at least one end on the line and eventually becoming a playmaker.

I have great confidence that John has that capability he shows enough flash on every play that his reads and stance will only mature into that of a seasoned defensive end, one we should believe will be there for a long time to come.

At Virginia Tech he started 32-of-43 games in his career; Finished his career with 253 tackles (153 solo), including 25 tackles for a loss; also added 26.5 career sacks for 187 yards. He is credited with 57 career quarterback pressures, has great strength with 440-pound bench press to show for it.

In all John seems to be a perfect fit in the overall defensive system, I look forward to observing him play in his second-year and believe he will be a bigger factor with 13 games to his credit last season.

Anthony Pleasant former New York Jet was signed last year as an unrestricted free agent, although he started every game last season as the left defensive end he never really broke out as the terrorizing pass rush specialist we had been seeking.

His tackling fundamentals were sound but his speed and agility to get in the quarterbacks face was almost nonexistent, and this is precisely what the 49er’s are in dire need of to cross over the line into an above-average defense.

Pleasant registered just two sacks as a 49er in 2000 he is a veteran defensive end and proven tackler, he is a ten-year veteran starting all 32 games in last two seasons with the New York Jets. He is a reliable run stopper and explosive pass rusher; overall he has recorded 46 sacks including a career-high 11 with Cleveland.

Anthony originally from Tennessee State stands 6-5 and weighs 272 pounds, he was originally drafted by Cleveland Browns in the 1990 NFL Draft in the third round.

But where was that awesome explosion and sack total in 2000? Certainly it should have been more defined than it was observed, I was disturbed knowing his credentials when he was acquired and not seeing it displayed on the field.

San Francisco attempted again to reach for a defensive end in the 2000 Draft after picking John Engelberger in the second round by drafting Lenoir-Rhyme’s premier defensive end John Milem in the fifth round of the draft. This was clear indication of their disappointment with 1999 draft acquisition Chike Okeafor.

John stands 6-7 and weighs 290 pounds he is quick, and a strong pass rusher with exceptional hands. He has the power to get inside and rush the passer; he has great footwork and acceleration to slip blockers.

But where was Milem when it came to getting in the quarterback’s face last season? We certainly did not see too much he played in a total of 145 plays and was involved in every game last season. The jury is still out on this one in my estimation, was he a far reach from a little known school? He might have been we will have to wait and see what a second-year will bring us.

With Lenoir-Rhyme he started 19-of-22 games, he recorded 84 tackles (56 solo) and had 16 sacks for a loss of 132-yards. The underlying question will remain on his playmaking techniques and his ability to mature after being in a NFL season stretching over 20 games including pre-season.

Then we have the biggest bust of them all in the 1999 NFL Draft San Francisco reached for Purdue’s very own defensive end Chike Okeafor in the third round, and we have been overly disappointed ever since.

He comes in as a physically impressive athlete with quickness and strength. He was timed 4.64 in 40-yard dash. He has played both linebacker positions at inside and outside and defensive end during his career. Durable he never missed a game while with Purdue due to injury. It seems he saved all that lost time for us after being drafted.

Okeafor stands at 6-4 and weighs 248 pounds, some consider him too light in some aspects and does not have the ability to shed 300-pound blockers in his pass-rush to the quarterback. He registered only two sacks this season and in my opinion is suspect to any further improvement with the history he has demonstrated so far. Being his third year he must make it or break it now and remain healthy at the same time.

Let’s meet the coach.

Dwaine Board used to be one of San Francisco’s all-time sack leaders; he is now in his 11th season with the team. His sixth year as a defensive line coach. Board spent four years as the team’s defensive line assistant, working primarily with the team’s nickel defense and the “elephant” spot, a combination lineman-linebacker, prior to his promotion in February of 94.

Dwaine was a member of three world championship 49er teams; Board recorded 61 career sacks from 1979-88 (plus eight in postseason). His four tackles, two sacks and constant pressure in Super Bowl XIX, earned him Defensive Player-of-the-Game honors in San Francisco’s 38-16 win over Miami.

Under his direction and teachings, the 1998 defensive unit recorded 51.0 sacks to rank second in the NFL. Individual performances included Chris Doleman who tied for second in the National Football Conference and third in the NFL with 15.0 sacks. In 1997 Board was a defining factor in developing the NFL’s Defensive -Player-of-the-Year in Dana Stubblefield, who led the team with a career high 15.0 sacks.

Obviously since then Board has had more than his work cut out for him, as the last remaining sack leader defensive tackle Bryant Young are all that remain in premier production. In order to find a diamond in the ruff the 49er’s will once again go to this year’s NFL Draft for another elite prospect.

Although there are many pressing needs in San Francisco linebacker being rated most important based on two veteran linebackers falling subject to the salary cap purge, defensive end is right up there as a top priority also.

I would relish in the moment if we could find that dominant pass-rushing specialist in this year’s draft. I believe we have been too dormant for too long on this position we need constant and unrelenting pressure applied to the opposing quarterback for our defense to take it to the next level.

What scouts look for in a defensive end.

Most teams use the 4-3 defense; the high demand for pass-rushing defensive ends has never been greater than it has been now. In the 4-3 defense most of the pass rush comes from the ends.

The right end should be the team’s elite pass rusher, providing speed and explosion off the corner. He should have great range and chase ability and at least be adequate against the run, even though it is a mere secondary responsibility.

Should he not be at least average against the run, opposing teams will run the ball right at him, exploiting the entire defense. Many young players that come into the league without great size and strength are contributing as right ends, either on a full-time basis or as nickel rushers.

On the left side end in the 4-3 you still have to have an athlete that has at least some pass-rush ability, too, but power is more important. He must be able to stop the run seeing that most (offenses are right-handed) and must be able to jam the tight end at the line.

In 3-4 defenses, the ends are more physical and are asked to play the run more so than the pass. In this type of defense the primary pass rush comes from the outside linebackers; the ends are relied upon to stuff the run and keep the blockers occupied.

Defensive ends in a 3-4 defense usually are tough guys with size and some athleticism but do not have to be outstanding pass rushers.

San Francisco is in dire need of a premier pass rusher, we have been able to switch from time to time as we experimented a little last season with the 3-4 defense making outside linebacker Julian Peterson the primary pass rusher and it worked to some extent.

In the 4-3 we counted on John Engelberger and Anthony Pleasant the majority of snaps, and that has had very mixed results with Pleasant being the weak link in the Armour as of right now. We must recapture the terror that was once common place with the 49er’s and that was to have a feared pass rush.

For defensive ends in the NFL the average player must have a height of 6-4 with the minimum being 6-2, at weight the average is 275 the minimum being 255, at speed the average is 4.80 in the 40-yard dash the minimum being 5.00.

Top Draft Prospects.

1. Missouri’s Justin Smith has been ranked the very best defensive end in the upcoming NFL 2001 Draft this April, he has been compared to Detroit Lion Robert Porcher which is one anyone would like to duplicate if possible. He is someone prepared to come right in and play immediately as he will be counted on to start right away.

Justin stands at 6-4 and weighs 277 pounds; he also has run the 40-yard dash in a recorded time of 4.65.

A) Versus the run.

Smith is not a great in-line run-stuffer, but at the same time is not a vulnerability, he is not a complete project yet, but is making improvements in his ability to defend the run. Has great initial quickness off the line, and moves well laterally. Shows knowledge on how to use his hands to shed blockers.

B) Pass rush.

Has quick feet and excellent burst off the line. He can beat a lot of players with his quick first step. Does not have great speed, but has the agility to get around the edge. Still must work on the different variations of pass-rushing moves, but he shows great promise.

He will be an immediate threat to the passer once in the starting lineup from Week One.

C) Initial quickness.

Is outstanding coming off the ball, Rarely takes a false step, and explodes out of blocks. He will need to learn to keep low out of his stance. He has gifted natural quickness.

D) Run/pass recognition.

Seldom gets lost out there. He has tremendous instincts and a nose for the ball. When he comes off his blocks, he takes few false steps in pursuit. He knows what is expected of him, and rarely blows an assignment.

E) Pursuit/tackling.

Smith has explosive strength, and has a motor that never stops running. He will make a lot of tackles while in pursuit because he never knows the words stop as he is chasing the ball.

F) Bottom line.

Justin Smith, a junior, did not get his deserved recognition at the college level. He has tremendous instincts, power and a sense for the game. He also has a rare combination of size and speed, which is why he is the number one draft prospect at this position.

He is an intense, productive pass rusher in the Grant Wistrom mold. Does have a feel for rushing the passer, combined with speed and quickness. Has been considered a little light, but he makes up for that with hard effort.

2. Florida State’s Jamal Reynolds is another top ranked defensive end in the 2001 NFL Draft, one San Francisco has it’s mouth watering for. Jamal has been compared to Miami Dolphin defensive end Jason Taylor. I see him as a definite gold mine should any team have the fortune of acquiring his services.

Jamal stands at almost 6-3 and weighs 254 pounds and has been recorded in the 40-yard dash at 4.50 although he has been rated as undersized he has proven to be a lethal menace to opposing quarterbacks.

A) Versus the run.

Reynolds has great speed, and has the ability to chase down most running backs, almost to the likeness of Tennessee Titan’s Jevon Kearse; he has a tendency to get pushed around at the point of attack. He is improving in this area but this is his most major flaw.

B) Pass rush.

He has rare speed, and is a tremendous all-around athlete. He has an outstanding first step, and rarely gets beat to the corner. Shows good moves in pursuit, and is the top pass rusher in his class of 2001.

C) Initial quickness.

He has a burst out of his stance that is equal to none; he shows exceptional football instincts and first move. Gets off the ball with awesome power, and stays low out of his stance.

D) Run/pass recognition.

He has shown improvement in this area. He has been a primary up-field guy who has not had to worry about reading keys or recognizing the run for most of his college career. However he is very prone to coaching and should continue to improve.

E) Pursuit/tackling.

He is fantastic in open spaces, and can chase down almost anyone. Does a nice job of using his hands to avoid getting caught in traffic. He is an explosive tackler who has learned to “tomahawk” quarterbacks from the backside. He does tend to tackle too high, usually when trying to force a fumble.

F) Bottom line.

Jamal Reynolds in all aspects is the best definition of a defensive end pound for pound in this year’s draft. He has a rare combination of size and speed, and he continues to develop his game. His senior season was a bit of a disappointment but he really wasn’t used correctly and played through some nagging injuries.

He is going to be a great athlete, especially in rushing the passer, right away starting in the NFL, and it would be shocking if he isn’t one of the top 10 picks.

The underlying question here with San Francisco is what do they go after first Dan Morgan at linebacker which seems to be the most pressing need or take Jamal Reynolds in the first round to anchor their end positions for a long time to come.

The answer to that will have to be evaluated by our front office, they both certainly warrant immediate attention, as they seem to be the cogs in the defensive wheel at this point in rebuilding our defensive units.

3. California’s Andre Carter is another possible prospect should Smith and Reynolds be swept away by other teams. He is a solid all around defensive end and he to could start right away if needed. He stands at 6-4 and weighs 260 pounds and has been recorded in the 40-yard dash at 4.85.

He has been compared to Tennessee Titan defensive end Kenny Holmes and seems to be a complete package that never stops hustling show good athleticism, technique and instincts. He has good upper-body strength, and can lock out at the point or jack offensive tackles. He plays bigger than his size.

A) Versus the run.

He plays with great leverage, has the strength to line up over the tight end and play on the strong side. Holds his ground and does a nice job of recognizing the run. Does not have the ideal bulk, and the opposing team will target him in the run game as a rookie.

B) Pass rush.

He certainly does not have the top 40-yard dash time, but still has a quick first step and has some powerful pass rush moves. Does an excellent job of getting up-field and working his way back inside. He has a strong club move like Carolina’s Reggie White and initial quickness allows him to get a jump on most offensive tackles.

C) Initial quickness.

Has outstanding quickness for a man his size, shows great burst off the ball, comes out low and accelerates in his second and third step.

D) Run/pass recognition.

Is improving in this area, he always seems to know where the ball is. Film study has revealed that he does tend to get too far up field and will run himself out of the play.

E) Pursuit/tackling.

He does not have great chase speed, but he is quick and will make a lot of plays in the backfield. He is a solid tackler with good technique. Explodes through the ball carrier, and has some big-play flair. However he will not make a lot of plays downfield.

F) Bottom line.

Carter seems to always give 100% on every play and is an athlete of high character. He is also a great team player and could develop someday into a Pro Bowler. His draft status fluctuated throughout his senior season, but it would be very surprising to see him still around by the 20th pick.

Overall analysis.

San Francisco needs a premier pass rushing specialist bottom line; any of these three would be a definite upgrade to our defensive unit as a whole. Second-year player John Engelberger will be on the opposite end, which one as a permanent is yet to be determined but he shows exceptional promise in my view.

Although Justin Smith is ranked first I like the sounds of Reynolds and Carter the most, the raw side seems to have a air of strength and personified intensity qualities well needed to play in the NFL. I would like to see a high sack total come from the end positions like it used to be not too long ago from none other than Chris Doleman himself.

Putting undue pressure on the quarterback is key to snuffing out long clock-eating offensive drives that target our secondary without assistance or mercy. It is time we lend that secondary some help, although I do feel strongly that they weathered well in their baptism of fire.

We are not so far away that we cannot be real competitors in the market for a winning record, and at the same time accomplish a playoff berth with the rookies we take in this draft. It will be difficult as we will once again have even more youth and less veterans that take the field, the learning process and it’s overall retaining foundation will be the deciding factor.
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.


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