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San Francisco 49ers Season Review: Justin Smith, The Driving Force Behind An Elite Defensive Line

We're starting to roll out our position-by-position grades for the San Francisco 49ers for this past season. It was a season that saw a team that was only expected to get four-to-six wins rise to the top and fall just a game short of an appearance in the Super Bowl. Though the season ended on a disappointing note, the team came so far and should feel great heading into the next season, providing they can keep the roster together.

The defensive line led the 49ers to a league-best rush defense and, of course, made the rest of the defense better around them. Let's take a look at the grades for the season

Justin Smith was ridiculously good at every single thing he did in 2011, as he has been since joining the 49ers. He's a veteran leader, and he played extremely well with his motor at 100 percent for each and every game. Smith is a great pass rusher who is always in the mix to disrupt a quarterback, and he's got some of the best block shedding to help stop the run. He was an unquestionable leader on defense, and despite the fact that he's now 32 years-old, he's looking like he'll continue to be an every-down player in 2012. Smith was arguably the defensive player of the year in 2011. A+

Isaac Sopoaga is a player who I personally was not so high on in the offseason. He was coming off a season at left defensive end in which, for the first time in his career, he wasn't useless. Then, Aubrayo Franklin left for "greener" pastures with the New Orleans Saints and Sopoaga had to switch positions. It was a big change, even though he'd played nose tackle before, especially given that he finally seemed to "get it" in 2010. But Sopoaga was fantastic this past season, stopping the run and occupying space for the best linebackers in the NFL in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Perhaps the biggest change for him is the fact that he found a way to use all that strength of his with a new set of moves and the application of leverage. A-

Ray McDonald received a nice extension in the offseason despite not having started at left defensive end. Up until that point, he'd been a backup, though it's worth noting that he was, in fact, a good backup with some solid pass-rushing skills. McDonald came in and played at a very high level, rushing the passer well and stopping the run better than most figured he could. Through the first few weeks, he was one of the best 3-4 ends in the NFL, but he cooled off near the end of the season, and was banged up. Either way, he earned his starter contract and should progress nicely next season, provided he can stay healthy. B+

Ricky Jean Francois played all positions on the defensive line in 2011, making starts at nose tackle and left defensive end, filling in for injuries. He played very well, and that kind of versatility is very useful in this league. You could probably ask any 49er fan if they're OK with Jean Francois as a starter, and a good portion will likely tell you that. Graded as a backup and his level of play off the bench, he'll get high marks. A-

Demarcus Dobbs was active for 12 games and recorded a couple tackles. He came in with nobody knowing who he was and ended up being active so much, which is definitely a good sign. Still, after a great preseason, a bit more was expected of him once the regular season came around. N/A

Ian Williams only appeared once and did not register any tackles. He remains a player with solid upside at the nose tackle position. N/Q

Overall, the 49ers boasted an extremely tough defensive line in 2011, and it is what anchored the NFL's best defense. Without the defensive line playing the way it did, Willis and Bowman might look a little more human, and the secondary would have struggled mightily. Having one of the best in the NFL, two dependable starters and a versatile backup gives the 49ers offensive line a final grade of A.