Aubrayo Franklin came to the San Francisco 49ers really under the radar and without many expectations. His first season reflected that, and his second season wasn't much better. He was too small and didn't have the gas tank to make it as an effective nose tackle in the 3-4 defense. People weren't even calling for him to be traded, they were calling for him to be cut. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula liked him and his physical tools, but couldn't seem to get much out of him. He was dead weight, and not the good kind of dead weight that sits in the middle and at least occupies space.
Running backs got by him and quarterbacks didn't fear him. The linebackers couldn't utilize his presence to make tackles and it seemed like he only had a job for lack of a better option. But in 2009 something clicked ... it's not yet clear what happened, but sometimes players just "switch on." Franklin switched on.
He was top of the league in stopping the run from his position. He was the third-ranked defensive tackle in regards to stopping the run. He was the fifth-ranked defensive lineman period in that vein as well. 93% of runs at him were unsuccessful, meaning they either resulted in negative yardage, zero yardage, or not enough yardage to convert a third-or fourth-down.
In short, he was the best nose tackle in the league, and if he wasn't, he wasn't any lower than second best. What followed him was an offseason of relative comfort and a missed training camp and minicamp while the 49ers sorted out his franchise tag business. That is to say: while Franklin sat on the tag until the last possible moment.
The result? Pre-2009 Aubrayo Franklin reared his ugly head for something like the first half of 2010. He was slow and ineffective, and generally did not look like a great player. But once he got his "football legs" back, he returned to dominant form as the season wore on. In other words, he was once again that piece of the 3-4 defense that guys like Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis relied on so much.
His lacking play at the beginning of the season didn't inspire a ton of confidence, so the 49ers passed up the opportunity to use the franchise tag on him. They also neglected to draft a replacement in the 2011 NFL Draft, which leads one to believe that they either are confident of bringing Franklin back, or have their eye on someone else. As to whether that someone else is on the roster or not, that's open for discussion.
Ricky Jean Francois has been Franklin's backup and did play pretty well during the preseason and any action he got during the season. He's still too small and too raw, coming out of the seventh round, and doesn't appear to be ready to shoulder the burden. With a full offseason and training camp, he might be ready to take some snaps away, but he's not at all ideal, especially in this market.
Isaac Sopoaga has played the position before, and he did play it decently. However, he also needs as much time as possible to re-acclimate himself with the position, plus his 2010 was such a stellar year at left defensive end. After spending most of his career seemingly being one step away from becoming a stable starter and potential impact player, he finally got on the right track last year with an above-average season. With Jim Tomsula reprising his role as defensive line coach, do the 49ers really want to mess that up?
So then we turn to the free agent market, and there's not much there. Aging veterans Ron Edwards and Pat Williams don't figure to have much left in the tank, and in the case of the former, he never had a ton to begin with. There's not much there, Franklin is clearly the top guy at this point.
The 49ers are in a position where they have two guys who might be able to play one of the most important positions in the 3-4 defense that Vic Fangio will be running. "Might" is a scary word when you're looking for the NFC West crown from the get-go, as sorry as this division is, you need that player in the middle of your line to do his job. Those two (Jean Francois and Sopoaga) might be able to do it, but that also means they might not.
Franklin is a guy who knows Tomsula and can get things done ... he's the top free agent nose tackle on the market, and every day they spend locked out is one less that any of the options on the roster or in free agency could be spending to prepare for the defense. Laying down the cash for Franklin is getting more appealing by the day.