Then the 49ers designated starting nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin as their franchise player in March.
That changed everything for Jean Francois, the defensive lineman out of LSU, not to mention accelerating the timetable of his development.
With Franklin missing all of San Francisco's offseason workouts while seeking a contract extension, and continuing to stay away throughout the first week of training camp, Jean Francois has been thrust into a starting role at one of the most pivotal positions in the 49ers' 3-4 defensive scheme.
He hasn't disappointed. Now a robust 310 pounds after an offseason of extensive training, the 6-foot-3 Jean Francois has stood out as one of the more active and impressive defenders during the team's two-a-day practices.
"Ricky, across the board, playing nose, is doing a good job and doing all the right things," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "He's still got a lot to learn, but we're happy with the progress that he's making."
As San Francisco's seventh-round draft pick last year, Jean Francois learned a lot by watching defensive linemen ahead of him on the depth chart such as Franklin, who had a career season in 2009. Franklin recorded 88 tackles and spearheaded San Francisco's rising defense from the point of attack.
Franklin played so well clogging the middle and allowing playmaking linebackers such as Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes to run free last season that he became one of the most sought-after defensive linemen on the free-agent market this year.
The 49ers secured his services for 2010 with the franchise designation, but Franklin still has not signed the team's one-year tender offer of $7.003 million. He might forgo the training camp grind before signing well into this month.
But with Jean Francois taking the first-team reps at nose tackle, Franklin's absence hasn't been a big issue. There is more talk now of Jean Francois' emergence and his ability to make his own mark in the middle of the trenches.
"If and when Aubrayo comes in, I'm happy," Jean Francois said Saturday. "But if he stays out longer, we can't sit here and worry about it. We can't lose a beat. In fact, we have to make the beat faster. So I figure I have to be that person to hit the drum a little faster."
Jean Francois has been impressive this week with his speed off the ball and improved technique that gives him leverage against larger offensive linemen.
He also has packed on 25 pounds of muscle since the end of last season, a development that has made Jean Francois a viable candidate to play on the nose after entering the NFL weighing 285 pounds. He took the initiative of daily regimens in the weight room with the team's workout warriors such as linemen Isaac Sopoaga, Justin Smith, David Baas and Eric Heitmann.
"I got here at 5:30 a.m. every day and hit the ground running," Jean Francois said. "I wanted to be the strongest guy here and lift more than anybody. I had to stay in the weight room every day to get to the point that I'm on the elite level with other players. I wanted to be the one to set the standard."
Now Jean Francois is setting a standard on the field that could earn him regular playing time this season regardless of when Franklin joins the team.
During Saturday's morning practice, Jean Francois again caught everybody's attention by hustling down the line of scrimmage to blow up a screen pass. He has been running sideline to sideline to get in on plays and make tackles since camp began.
"This is a privilege for me," Jean Francois said. "Now I want to get to the point where when we play a team, they have to change their blocking scheme for me. I love the responsibility this team is putting on my back. If everything's on my back, I might even carry the team. It's not that heavy."
In other news Saturday, the 49ers said Ahmad Brooks has a kidney laceration and will be evaluated in two weeks.