Ricky Jean Francois made a bold claim on Monday when he said he was the strongest man on the 49ers defense. When looking at his 6-foot-3, 295-pound frame the argument is enough to make you stop and think, but ultimately, Jean Francois’ versatility is what makes him so valuable to his team.
Coaches often call Jean Francois the fourth starter on the defensive front, despite the fact that the team utilizes a 3-4 system.
Listed as a defensive tackle, Jean Francois knows all three spots on defensive line and he plays each with impressive effectiveness. That fact allows Jean Francois to push his teammates to improve all the time.
The battle among the 49ers defensive linemen often carries over into the weight room with arguably the strongest unit in the NFL competing with each other just like they’re playing on the field.
Jean Francois’ claims that he can move more weight than any other 49ers defender could raise some eyebrows when considering some of his teammate’s abilities.
After all, he plays on the same line as fellow behemoths like All-Pro Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga, not to mention Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, the team’s pair of first-team All-Pro linebackers.
The friendly competition to establish supremacy in strength within the 49ers defense transcends the boundaries of the field or even the weight room.
“When you go inside the weight room the same competition you have on the field is going,” Jean Francois said. “If somebody squats five plates and they walk away, but they heard somebody squatted another six, they will leave wherever they are sitting and come back to put the belt back on to do more than you.
“That’s good to have guys be competitive on the field and off the field.”
Jean Francois said the defense is like a family despite the rivalry over who is strongest. Players mess around with one another, but at the end of the day, everyone has each others’ backs to reach one common goal.
Jean Francois attributes defensive linemen pushing each other to improve in every aspect as a major reason the defense did not allow a rushing touchdown through the first 15 weeks of last season, an NFL record.
“You have days where you come after practice where Justin will lift the whole weight room, you’ve got Ice (Sopoaga) who will move the whole building and you’ve got Ray who will probably pick up the same things that are out there being used to build the new stadium.”
For many of the 49ers, including Jean Francois, the conditioning program extends beyond the weight room. The fourth-year defensive tackle is more than willing to try new techniques, which would help him get through the grind of being a NFL player.
Jean Francois has observed many veteran teammates’ training methods and Randy Moss has apparently caught the big man’s eye.
“One thing Randy Moss always does is swim,” Jean Francois said. “I always mess with him about that, but once he started I have seen a lot of guys start swimming . . . I want to start trying to swim back and forth. I call him Michael Phelps because every morning you walk in and you see him swimming.”
While being in peak condition is vitally important, Jean Francois’ versatility is what most endeared him to the 49ers staff. Coaches gave Jean Francois the ability to play multiple positions on the defensive line from the start and he took advantage of it.
After seeing limited action in his rookie campaign in 2009, Jean Francois’ production has increased each of the past two seasons with 23 tackles in 2010 followed up by 32 in 2011.
In 2012, Jean Francois is seeking to continue improving even coming of a career-year. In many ways that attitude characterizes the 49ers as a whole heading into the regular season.
“We don’t pay attention to last year,” Jean Francois said. “All we can worry about is what we can control right now. That’s being in camp, trying to execute all our assignments and trying to be the best we are.”
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