The 49ers are in their fourth week of training camp. Some positions are beginning to take shape. Others remain cloudy. Here’s where things stand on defense as the team returns home from six days in Maryland.
Ian Williams has been cleared to practice after being sidelined 11 months by a low block and the broken fibula and torn ligaments that resulted from it. It may take Williams time to get up to speed, but his imminent return bodes well for a unit that has been beset by summer injuries. It also allows good-looking second-year player Quinton Dial to concentrate on defensive end, where, at 6-foot-5, he is much better suited.
Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are the unquestioned starters, but Dial, Tank Carradine and Tony Jerod-Eddie give the 49ers easily the best depth they’ve had at the position under Jim Harbaugh. The question now becomes: If everyone’s healthy, who is active on game days? Another cup-runneth-over issue is that Smith is signed through next season while McDonald is signed through 2016. When do the youngsters get a chance to sign and how do the 49ers handle the transition?
With all that depth, it’s hard to see the 49ers keeping neophyte Lawrence Okoye on the 53-man roster. He may be earmarked for the practice squad but would need to make it through waivers to do that. Reportedly, his ankle injury is not long term. It will be interesting to see if it “lingers” beyond final cut-down day on Aug. 30. Demarcus Dobbs’ spot on the roster also seems tenuous with three younger, bigger players vying for playing time. He’s always seemed like a better fit for a 4-3 defense, and a smart team will snap him up if he’s released. Rookie Kaleb Ramsey appears destined to spend 2014 alongside fellow draft picks Brandon Thomas, Keith Reaser and Trey Millard.
No one has seen Williams practice since early September, and he will use the rest of the preseason to find the form that made him the starter last year. Williams is not as big and strong as Glenn Dorsey, who is out for an extended period with a biceps tear. But he’s smart, determined and is accustomed to working with Smith and McDonald.
There’s only been once change since the spring at this position. Rookie Aaron Lynch looks impressive, and he’s only been practicing in full for about a week. He’s massive, very physical and has long arms —not quite Aldon Smith size, but eye-popping nonetheless — and he’s been a handful for blockers. He looks very much like the guy who played at Notre Dame, not the one who disappointed at USF. He must add to his array of pass-rush moves. Right now his bull-rush is his go-to option. But he ought to benefit from working alongside Smith, who has been seen offering advice during practice. Still, Lynch is unlikely to have a role early in the season.
Though Chris Borland would overwhelmingly win a popularity contest among fans and national media, the job of replacing NaVorro Bowman during the first half of the season still belongs to Michael Wilhoite. He knows the defense, doesn’t make mistakes and at least has been practicing alongside Patrick Willis all offseason. Borland flies around the field like a pinball but doesn’t always find his mark. He’s still picking up the defense, of course, and the hope is that when he has a better grasp, his aggressive style will take him to the ball and not just the pile.