SANTA CLARA – The 49ers’ first-team defense during Monday’s practice featured a young, talented defensive line that could be together for a long time.
“It’s a lot of man,” said Quinton Dial, referring the size of the unit on which he lined up at nose tackle with Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner at the end positions.
General manager Trent Baalke and coach Chip Kelly both subscribe to the philosophy that bigger is better. And nowhere is that more apparent than on the defensive line.
Dial, 26, is listed at 6 foot 5, 318 pounds; Armstead, 22, is 6-7, 292; and Buckner, 22, is 6-7, 300. Armstead and Buckner were the 49ers’ top draft picks the past two years.
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Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said all the defensive linemen are being trained to play all three spots. That way, he said, the three best defensive linemen will see the bulk of the playing time.
Projected starting nose tackle Ian Williams is out for the season after sustaining a mysterious lower left leg injury during the offseason. Dial appears to be the player best-suited to take over in the center of the 49ers’ defensive line.
“I view it like I’m playing end,” Dial said. “Things just happen a little bit quicker at the nose. I’m just going to do whatever it takes to help the team win. If that’s me playing nose, that’s what I’m going to do.
“It’s really all the same. You’re just in the middle, so things are going to happen quicker. You have to know how to react to certain blocks.”
Dial was a 49ers’ fifth-round draft pick in 2013. In his first three seasons, he outperformed his draft status. He was forced into the starting lineup for six games in 2014 due to late-season injuries. Last year, he played very well in 15 starts.
His performance prompted the 49ers to sign him to a four-year, $12.7 million contract extension. With his experience and the security in knowing he will remain on the team for a while, Dial said he has taken on more of a leadership role.
“I feel like I’m more in this leadership role,” he said. “I’m not saying the extension did that for me, but just as guys looking up to me, the young guys asking me questions. I feel like I’m in that leadership role now.”
Although the 49ers’ coaching staff figures to continue to work different players at different spots to find the right combinations, it appears to be a safe bet Armstead and Buckner will factor prominently into the team’s scheme.
Armstead, chosen with the No. 17 overall pick in 2015, was considered raw when he jumped to the NFL after his junior season. The 49ers worked him into the action slowly, as he started just one game. Despite his limited action, Armstead was ranked as the 49ers’ second-best defensive player, behind Williams, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system.
“He’s more prepared this year, his second go-around, than his rookie year,” Dial said. “He knows what to expect now. He got his feet wet in his rookie year.”
Buckner, the seventh overall pick, was generally regarded as being a more polished all-around player entering this season than Armstead was upon his entry into the NFL.
“He’s a good, smart kid,” Dial said. “I think he’s going to fit in right with us. He’s athletic and smart. He’s versatile like all of us.”
On a team with so many question marks throughout the roster, the defensive line appears to be one area of the team that is set up well to be stacked for a long time with Dial, Armstead and Buckner.
“I think we can be very good,” Armstead said. “We have a lot of guys on the D-line who can play in the NFL and play good. I’m sure they’re going to keep mixing it up and see what group fits best together. It’ll be a long process figuring that out.”