The potential weakness of the 2017 49ers’ defense could very well be their young secondary. Thus, if the 49ers hope to be competitive this season, their pass rush will have to be a consistent and effective presence in games. This position group will arguably be of even greater importance during the early part of the season, as the 49ers cornerbacks, in particular, continue their adjustment to the demands of the new scheme. Furthermore, the new-look defensive line will be tasked with catalyzing a significant improvement in the 49ers’ run defense this season.
The team has decided to keep ten defensive linemen on the final 53-man roster while the age average for the defensive line is 25 years old. Let’s dive a little deeper and discover who the ten bricks that form the foundation of the 49ers’ defense are – many of whom are hoped to form the foundation of the defense for years to come.
The 49ers brought in long time pass-rushing stud Elvis Dumervil in free agency in 2017. Back in 2014, Dumervil set a franchise record with 17 sacks while playing for the Baltimore Ravens, which was the peak of an otherwise highly impressive career to date. In the past few seasons, however, he has been hampered by issues with his Achilles. He sat out parts of the 2015 training camp because of soreness in the tendon before gutting it out in the regular season.
Not only did Dumervil play all 16 games that season but he became an every-down player after Terrell Suggs suffered a season-ending achilles injury in Week 1. Dumervil finished with 48 tackles and six sacks. After the 2015 season, he learned that his own achilles was 60 percent torn. He underwent surgery in February. As a result, he sat out the first three weeks of the 2016 season, before playing two games and realizing he lacked his usual explosiveness. He was forced to miss the following five games before returning again. In eight games, Dumervil sacked the QB three times as well as recording nine tackles, showing considerable improvement and increasing confidence in his body as the season wore on. In the final five weeks of last season, Dumervil ranked sixth among all edge rushers with 22 pressures forced from the left side per PFF.
Dumervil comes to San Francisco with 99 career sacks, five Pro Bowl appearances, and two All-Pro campaigns. Now back to full strength, the heralded pass-rusher expects big things from himself in 2017. “(My) personal goals are to do a lot better than I did last year,” Dumervil said to 49ers.com. “Last year was rough being injured. To be able to come back and appreciate being healthy is important.”
Dumervil seems confident that he can continue his late 2016 form with the 49ers this season, where he will be used as a specialist edge rusher in passing situations. Having an array of moves which more than make up for his diminishing explosiveness, Dumervil could prove an incredibly valuable player for the 49ers’ defense in his pass rushing capacity. His experience as an OLB in a 3-4 defense means he has the coverage ability to drop into flat zones on zone blitzes – a notable part of the 49ers’ defensive repertoire this offseason.
The Miami Dolphins released Earl Mitchell on February 16 in a cost-cutting move, and the 49ers wasted no time in targeting Mitchell. They signed him just nine days later, agreeing to a four-year contract.
A man of high character and the type of player Lynch and Shanahan look for, Mitchell’s main reason for choosing the 49ers were the familiar faces. The biggest factor was 49ers’ defensive line coach, Jeff Zgonina. Mitchell has worked with Zgonina in the past and is someone he has tremendous respect for the defensive line coach. Another familiar face that lured Mitchell to Santa Clara was defensive quality control coach, DeMeco Ryans. Having played together in Houston, Mitchell was familiar with the type of person and how smart Ryans is.
Earl Mitchell is a tone-setter who plays the game with a tremendous passion and the effort necessary to win in this league. Mitchell is the expected starter at nose tackle in Saleh’s 4-3 defense. He made some noise during the preseason as he consistently got pressure up the middle and penetrated into the backfield on a few occasions to hit the ball carrier behind the LOS. Despite not having prototypical nose tackle size, Mitchell’s combination of speed, explosiveness, and strength makes him a reliable option as a two-down nose tackle who also carries a degree of pass rushing threat. This versatility is undoubtedly what makes him an attractive player.
“I think he’s damn near an elite six-technique,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said on August 24 after practice. “To be able to create pocket push from an edge, I think that’s where his home is. There’s no shame in that, and I think he’s pretty freaking good at it.” Saleh’s words were music to the ears of 49ers fans who have long felt that the former Florida State man had long been miscast in the 49ers’ 3-4 schemes.
Carradine has been known for struggling to fit in San Francisco’s various schemes during his three active seasons after missing his first recovering from an ACL tear. The 49ers first got Carradine to bulk up to near 300 pounds to play along the interior in a 3-4, where he was clearly out of place. He was then encouraged to shed weight last year to play outside linebacker – where to his credit, Carradine was quietly effective – startlingly so in coverage. However, he came nowhere near to showing the abilities that made him such a highly touted talent coming out of college.
Perhaps an interesting comparison to Carradine would be Jadeveon Clowney. As Saleh said, Carradine seems to be at home playing on the strong side of the defensive line and is an incredibly talented run defender, where he has rare power and explosiveness – similar to Clowney. He can abuse tight ends and has the authority to defeat tackles and guards at the point of attack.
In passing situations, Carradine has the versatility to play on the edge or inside. He has straight-line explosiveness, again similar to Clowney, and if given the green light to rush the passer when utilizing his effective (albeit somewhat limited skill set) he could do some damage in his new role. He’s not as effective as Clowney as a pass rusher in particular and is something of a poor man’s Clowney due to the Texans’ otherworldly explosiveness.
Does Tank Carradine have a breakout season in him? pic.twitter.com/oAWu1ev47f
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) August 23, 2017
Nevertheless, a poor man’s Clowney is no bad thing, and Carradine did show a lot of promise during the preseason. According to PFF, he was one of the top pass rushing defensive ends. We will likely see him most often on run downs, but this season Carradine will have his greatest opportunity showing fans why he was worth that second round pick in 2013.
Aaron Lynch has had his fair share of problems over the past couple years, whether it be weight issues, suspension, or injuries. They have all contributed to an inconsistent career as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. However, Lynch’s physical tools coupled with how his offseason, training camp and preseason have progressed seem to indicate it’s arrow up for the pass rusher.
Lynch will likely be lining up at the “LEO” position or as a passing downs edge rusher. The LEO in Saleh’s defense is this teams best pass rusher and infrequently will be asked to drop into coverage on zone blitzes. Much like Dumervil, the experience of Lynch as a 3-4 OLB means that he has more coverage experience than many players who play the LEO role in the NFL and thus gives the 49ers more play-calling versatility on passing downs.
No defender in the NFL registered more pressures this week than 49ers Aaron Lynch pic.twitter.com/1RB4L85KMf
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) August 29, 2017
Lynch is also a highly talented pass rusher when fit. In the 49ers’ Week 3 preseason game versus the Vikings, Lynch was graded by PFF at an 87.0. He was one of the top pass rushers that week; providing eight quarterback pressures out of twenty-three pass rushing snaps. This pass rushing ability is why he is still on the roster as a pass-rush specialist.
San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead returns lighter and cured of his long standing shoulder ailment, and that could mean a breakout season for the former Oregon Ducks star. The 49ers’ first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft entered training camp weighing around 275 pounds after learning he would be moving from an interior defensive end position in a 3-4 defense to more of an edge rusher in the 4-3 defense scheme under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. The alteration of his role – from a 3-4 space eater with pass rushing potential to a 4-3 penetrator required greater quickness that his new weight theoretically gives him. The switch to the 49ers “Leo” position also required a change in technique and approach.
Throughout his football career, Armstead has been a hand in the dirt kind of player. While he would still be doing that in this defense, he could also be dropping into coverage during zone blitzes. That’s where Armstead will largely be entering new ground, though he did it on occasion in previous seasons. I don’t expect him to do it a whole lot, but Armstead will still have to drop back from time to time. While his 6’7 frame should help him in coverage, I would not be surprised to see some growing pains early on. Otherwise, I would expect his new position to mask some of his issues against the run (he will primarily be operating on the weak side of the defensive line on run downs) whilst he will move around the defensive line wherever his dangerous pass rushing abilities can be utilised to cause maximum disruption.
Last season, Buckner played over a thousand snaps. Buckner told the media during the recent offseason program that he did ask for a break by tapping his helmet during the 49ers’ November loss in Arizona but no help arrived, so Buckner never asked again.
This year will be different under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and line coach Jeff Zgonina. Here’s what Saleh had to say about Buckner’s rookie year snap count back in June. “When you look at a guy like (DeForest) Buckner last year having played almost 1,000 snaps — in my mind, that’s criminal,” Robert Saleh said recently. “Ideally, all of them are working about 500, 600 snaps and trying to utilize everything they’ve got every snap that they’re on the football field.”
DeForest Buckner refuses to come off the field pic.twitter.com/458aemu1iH
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 25, 2017
Defensive Line coach Jeff Zgonina also chimed in about the subject. “I believe in fresh bodies all the time,” he said. “I don’t like to see a guy play over a thousand snaps in a season like he did last year. Especially with a rookie – that’s a lot of snaps.”
At the Jaguars, who Saleh was hired away from, the 3-tech defensive tackle was the team’s premier interior pass rusher, while the strong-side defensive end was more of a run stopper on first and second downs. In passing situations, the team tended to have two 3-tech defensive tackles to rush from the interior. Malik Jackson, previously a 3-4 end, was signed from the Denver Broncos in early 2016 to play the 3-tech tackle role in Jacksonville.
Buckner has had the most success in his career rushing the passer from the 3-tech spot, where his most successful move is bull-rushing interior linemen. His swim move is also a useful weapon, though on occasion the latter in particular was unsuccessful because he got too high, which is unsurprising given Buckner is 6’7. His long arms invariably give him a reach advantage over guards and centers and his ability to convert speed to power was often too much for them. His run stopping will however have to improve but being able to penetrate rather than read and react could well help him significantly in this area.
“Thomas is an explosive defender who combines strength, quickness, and a muscle-car motor to drive him around the field making play after play.”
The above quote from Lance Zierlein sums up the 49ers’ third consecutive first round defensive lineman Solomon Thomas to a T. Thomas has incredibly polished hands which can generate quick wins whether he lines up on the edge or on the interior, a versatility permitted by sufficient size to set the edge as a base down strong-side defensive end as well as kicking inside on passing downs. Already he has shown he is capable of being a versatile, every down contributor, which, even for a first round pick, is rare when making the jump from CFB to the NFL. Thomas’ potential is staggering and it will be interesting to see if he benefits from the expected rotation with fellow recent first rounders DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead on passing downs.
The 49ers selected Ronald Blair in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, 142nd overall.
As a rookie, Blair come on particularly well towards the end of the season in the absence of Arik Armstead, as he grew increasingly acclimatised to the NFL. He was particularly effective as a run defender – making him an interesting option as a base down strong side end who could rotate with Tank Carradine and Solomon Thomas.
He finds himself way down the depth chart this year however and injuries have not helped him – on Sunday, the 49ers placed Blair on designated to return IR – but if he does return his versatility to line up across the defensive line (dependent on down and distance) will undoubtedly see him get some meaningful snaps.
So Faithfuls will have to wait and see if Blair can indeed make his presence known in the new defense, though it’ll have to be after Week 6.
D.J Jones, an alum of Ole Miss and “Last Chance U” EMCC was picked up by the 49ers late in this year’s draft. Given the diminishing demands for nose tackles, Jones’ late drafting was not surprising, but the 49ers may have got themselves a draft day steal in the only Jones on their original roster to make it onto the 53.
Though Jones will likely backup Earl Mitchell, he has already flashed the strength and lateral movement skills to suggest we can see him early and often this season on the field. Similarly to Mitchell, Jones also has every down capabilities (though in Jones’ case he is far more of a projection than the veteran Mitchell). His progress will be interesting to watch and I’m intrigued to see how much work he gets as the season develops.
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