SANTA CLARA – The 49ers opened last season with seven defensive linemen on their 53-man roster and two additional players stashed on reserve lists.
The 49ers’ defensive line might be the deepest and most-talented position group on this year's team. And the thought of parting ways with four or five of those players is not a reality defensive line coach Scott Brown wants to face.
“Yeah, it tears me apart,” Brown said Wednesday after practice. “It tears me apart because of the way they treat me. I still think coaching -- I don’t care if it’s the NFL level or the college level -- is built on relationships, and these guys have been amazing. Amazing.
“I don’t even want to think about that. I have to think about it, but I don’t like to think about it.”
Coach Jim Tomsula handpicked Brown, 63, as his successor on the 49ers’ coaching staff. Brown spent every season since 1976 as a college assistant coach – with all but one season coaching the defensive line. His stops along the way were Adams State, his alma mater where he played four seasons as a defensive end and linebacker, Texas State, Texas Christian, Minnesota, Duke, Colorado State and Arizona State.
When Brown stepped away from coaching upon undergoing back surgery, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke offered him a scouting position with the 49ers. (Baalke first met Brown when he was a coach at South Dakota State and Brown was at Minnesota from 1992 to '95.)
Brown accepted Baalke's offer, and was assigned to scouting the Midwest and Midlands. But Brown also kept a keen eye on all defensive line prospects across the country. During trips to Santa Clara, Brown was paired with Tomsula to discuss such defensive line prospects as Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Mike Purcell and Kaleb Ramsey.
Brown had not thought about a possible return to coaching until he received a phone call while out to dinner with his wife, Pam, and friends at Bisetti's Ristorante in Fort Collins, Colorado, shortly after Tomsula was promoted to head coach.
After 36 years of coaching at the college level, Brown is enjoying every moment of his time with the 49ers. Due to his physical condition, he is not able to demonstrate techniques as he had in the past. He has former 49ers defensive lineman Aubrayo Franklin to provide assistance. Franklin spent four seasons as a player under Tomsula, and is well-versed on the routine.
“This is a really, really good group of men that want to win and they put their egos aside and we just go to work,” Brown said. “That’s the way it truly is. You got to credit Jim for that. That’s the way he’s raised them and brought them into this profession.”
The 49ers play a three-man defensive line. In nickel situations, typically only two defensive linemen are on the field, with outside linebackers stationed at the defensive end positions.
The 49ers finished last season with five defensive linemen on the 53-man roster after Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams were placed on injured reserve.
It might be the most-difficult position group on the 49ers to sort out. The group of linemen includes first-round draft pick Arik Armstead, along with veterans Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Darnell Dockett and Tony Jerod-Eddie. Carradine, Dial and Ramsey were recent draft picks. Purcell might have been the team’s most impressive player in the exhibition opener against the Houston Texans. Lawrence Okoye and Garrison Smith are young linemen who have shown promise.
All NFL teams must cut their 90-man rosters to 75 on Tuesday, Sept. 1. Four days later, the league’s 53-player limit is mandated.
Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini echoed Brown’s dread at delivering the bad news to some of the linemen in the room. Like Brown, he sees the older players doing all they can to help out the young players who are trying to break onto the 49ers’ roster.
“Everybody knows that at some point other people are going to have to go home,” Mangini said. “And, ideally, however it pans out, all of these guys put really good tape out there for the rest of the league to look at. And, at the end of the day, they all find good spots to continue their career because they deserve it and they’ve worked hard.
“One of the worst days in football is that, the days you have to cut players because you’ve done so much with them, you build relationships and you care about them and they care about their teammates. You’re really happy for their success, they move forward, but you wish they could have moved forward with you.”