Niners defensive end Ray McDonald (91) has been an iron man. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Wear and tear on players is inevitable over the course of a long NFL season, and it was one reason cited for the 49ers’ drop-off on defense at the end of the regular season and in the postseason in 2012-13.
Analysts particularly pointed to San Francisco’s defensive line, where Ray McDonald and Justin Smith were almost always on the field. In fact, over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, 3-4 ends McDonald (2,165) and Smith (2,141) ranked third and fourth in the NFL among defensive linemen in number of snaps played, according to ESPN. McDonald was one of only three defensive linemen in the league last season to play at least 90 percent of his unit’s snaps.
So, this offseason, the 49ers were intent on bringing in players who could add depth along the defensive front. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and key reserve Ricky Jean Francois left the Niners in free agency, but veteran Glenn Dorsey was added from the Chiefs and San Francisco brought in defensive linemen Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial and pass rusher Corey Lemonier in the draft. Plus, former backup Ian Williams has been given a chance to contribute, and could win a starting spot at nose tackle. With Dorsey and Williams, plus Carradine, Lemonier and Dial – and holdovers Demarcus Dobbs and Will Tukuafu in the mix -- the 49ers would be able to have more of a rotation on the defensive line in practices and games to keep players fresh for the end of the season.
Already at the team’s training camp in Santa Clara, the rotation is a topic and a system in place during practice. And McDonald, for one, is fine with it. Smart move, he says.
“That’s the plan,” McDonald told Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “The younger guys are getting a lot more reps now. We expect them to come in and take the load off of me and Justin.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio should be able to go into the regular season with a deeper bench of linemen.
“Hey, I’m looking forward to it,” McDonald told Lynch of getting more plays off. “If the young guys can go in there and there’s no drop-off, great. That’s the way it’s looking right now.”
Even Smith – who in the past has hated to come off the field – appears eager to buy in to a rotation that would allow him to catch his breath a bit more in 2013.
“There are definitely guys in there worthy of some reps,” Smith told reporters of the new defensive linemen in the locker room. “Anytime you have that situation, you look into it.”