It's almost a shame that the majority of NFL fans cannot name the other two starting defensive linemen outside of Justin Smith. As far as 3-4 defenses go, and performing at a high level within your team's scheme, the 49ers have the best starting unit in the league - rivaled only by the New York Giants.
Justin Smith: Not just the league's best defensive lineman, but a top defensive player. Most people believe Smith should've won Defensive MVP of 2011, but it went to Terrell Suggs who plays a more glamorous position. Smith is the closer for the 49ers; he reigns terror on offensive lines and his performance ignites a ripple effect on the rest of the defense. This man's dominance was unparalleled in his season with San Francisco last season, and he will look to build on that in 2012.
Isaac Sopoaga: He is big enough to play the nose in the No. 1 defense's 3-4 scheme, while also being versatile and smart enough to play offense; catching, running and blocking. Sopoaga does not get a lot of press, but perhaps that's a good thing. He is one of the key components that allow all of the surrounding talent to fly around and make plays.
Ray McDonald: There were a number of games where McDonald was the defensive lineman stepping up. In his first year starting for San Francisco, McDonald had 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles at a position that isn't very stats-happy. He is powerful, consistent and a great complement to Justin Smith. McDonald, 27, will only get better as his best years appear to be ahead of him.
Other players to consider outside the starting three:
Jean-Francois is the primary substitute behind the three starting defensive tackles. Dobbs, Williams, Tukuafu and Jerod-Eddie are young guys looking to secure a place for themselves on the team, with the hopes of being starters someday.
When San Francisco's defensive line takes the field in the nickel, their pass rushing down lineman include Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks coming off the edge - two players who would excel as 4-3 ends elsewhere. And a reason for the success for the speed rushers is due to Smith and Sopoaga clogging up the middle and absorbing double-teams.
It also must be noted that a relative part of the unit's success is because of their position coach Jim Tomsula. After seeing the results from the defensive line, it's clear that Tomsula is among the league's best position coaches. He gets elite level production out of unheralded players that were either acquired via free agency or in the late rounds of the NFL Draft.
From the perspective of a squad that doesn't take steps backwards, the defensive line could reach extreme levels of dominance in 2012. Sopoaga and McDonald are going to make improvements in their game as entrenched starters - Sopoaga now at nose tackle and McDonald at the left defensive tackle position.
And lucky for 49ers fans, Smith didn't win Defensive MVP or the Super Bowl in 2011, so if anything, that chip on his shoulder has grown larger. This is a position group that will unanimously be branded elite by all the league's followers in 2012.