In a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle is the heart of the defensive line. An ideal NFL nose tackle will eat up multiple blockers on nearly every snap, allowing his fellow defensive lineman and linebackers to diagnose the play with as little resistance as possible.
Isaac Sopoaga, the San Francisco 49ers‘ starter at said position, was hardly the ideal nose tackle in 2012.
“Soap” entered the 2012 season coming off a stellar campaign but failed to equal the amount of success he found in 2011. In fact, outside of that one solid year, he’s never been all that great on the gridiron.
I’m not trying to turn this into a full-on hate-fest. The 6’2″, 330-pound Samoan could snap me in half if he wanted. Rather, I’m simply stating the case that while Sopoaga may be serviceable on most days, the 49ers can surely do better. Especially if 2012 was a sign of things to come for the aging nine-year veteran.
Every day of Sopoaga’s NFL career has been spent playing for the Red and Gold, but his latest contract has expired and he’ll be entering free agency this off-season. If the 49ers are looking for a fresh face on the interior of the D-line, as I believe they should be, the time is now.
Unfortunately, the Niners don’t necessarily have a starter-in-waiting to replace Sopoaga. Ricky Jean Francois is a solid backup, but really nothing more than a backup and also a free agent this spring. With that said, is it worth letting Sopoaga walk to upgrade the position at the risk of potentially losing your starter and his backup?
Yes. Yes it is.
The 49ers’ front office has done a phenomenal job keeping its defense in tact over the past couple of years, and there won’t be many changes heading into the 2013 season, either. Even so, if there is one position that is lacking, it’s nose tackle.
When Sopoaga was at his best in 2011, the 49ers’ run defense was historically good. The Niners didn’t allow a rushing TD or a 100-yard rusher for the first 14 games of the season and held opponents to a league-low rushing average of 3.5 yards per carry.
In 2012 they weren’t a whole lot worse (allowing 3.7 ypc), but allowed seven rushing TDs during the regular season and just weren’t as effective at stopping the run, particularly in the red zone. A new, talented body to add to the interior of the D-line would likely do a much better job of keeping blockers off of All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and help them in stopping ball-carriers at the line of scrimmage.
Luckily for the 49ers, the 2013 NFL Draft class is loaded with top-tier defensive tackles that are perfect fits for the nose position in a 3-4 defense. Plus, there aren’t many NFL defenses that employ a 3-4 scheme so it could be easy pickings for San Francisco come draft weekend.
Star Lotulelei out of Utah is the first name that comes to mind, but he likely won’t be around when the first pick in the first round at No. 31 overall. Still, GM Trent Baalke is loaded with draft picks this year (14 to be exact) and shouldn’t hesitate to slide up in the first round for a game-changer like this. San Fran has no room for 14 draft picks on its roster, anyway.
If Lotulelei is not a realistic option (he could wind up being a Top-Five pick), the Niners could scout (and probably will) prospects like Johnathan Hankins (Ohio State), Jonathan Jenkins (Georgia) and Jesse Williams (Alabama). Free agency is always an option, too.
The goal is to use the off-season to improve your roster at every possible position. The 49ers are already pretty damn good in almost every area, so now is the time to explore long-term options at positions lacking them. Nose tackle, in addition to defensive end (Justin Smith is going on 34 and will be coming off of triceps surgery), is the position that sticks out the most in that regard.