SANTA CLARA -- In dire need of a pass-rush specialist, the 49ers selected Tank Carradine in the second round of the 2013 draft after he recorded 11 sacks in his final season at Florida State.
Five years later and scheduled for unrestricted free agency in March, Carradine has found his niche as a run-down specialist while lining up at “big end” in the 49ers’ new 4-3 scheme.
“At first, they didn’t think I could play the run like that,” Carradine said. “But I think once I got into a scheme that fits me, I showed that I’m capable of stopping the run in this defense.”
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh described Carradine as an “elite” defensive end playing on base downs lined up against the tight end. However, Carradine’s season was derailed in Week 3 when he sustained two torn ligaments in his right ankle against the Los Angeles Rams.
Carradine missed eight weeks and came back rusty against Seattle in Week 12. After sitting out one game, he showed his power in the run game last week with a strong defensive effort in a 26-16 win over the Houston Texans.
“It’s not all healed, but it’s healed enough,” Carradine said. “I know I got the power back. I’m not 100 percent. I’m good enough to play and finish off the season. I want to play. I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win. That’s what I’ll do.”
Carradine has not played a snap on third down in the five games in which he has appeared this season. He believes he still has a lot to offer as an inside pass rusher, but his presence has been felt for a much-improved run defense.
Last season, the 49ers were the worst run defense in the NFL, yielding an average of 4.8 yards per rush attempt. This season, the 49ers are vastly improved. At 3.9 yards allowed per attempt, the 49ers’ run defense is No. 7 in the league.
It all makes sense, according to Carradine, because Saleh has installed a system that fits the players in the team's front seven.
“Because you had guys in a scheme that didn’t fit them,” Carradine said of last season’s problems. “Moving to a 4-3, we have guys who fit the scheme and can just attack, get up the field. Last year with the 3-4, it was reading and playing your keys. When we moved to a 4-3, we had more guys with 4-3 potential.”
Carradine’s weight hovered around 300 pounds to take on the demands of being a 3-4 defensive lineman. Now, he is down to 270 pounds, which is closer to his ideal playing weight. Carradine does not have a contract for next season, but he made it clear he wants to return and make a mark under the direction of a coaching staff that has finally figured out how to utilize his style of play.
“I want to be here. I love it here,” Carradine said. “But I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve only played five games this year and I didn’t get to show a whole lot.
“But, hopefully, I can finish strong these last couple of games and come back next year and play because I love this scheme. I’d love to come back next year and play for the 49ers. If not, I have to move on and try to go to a team with a scheme that fits me.”