Week two of OTAs is now in the books and we’re starting to get some insight into how the 49ers roster stacks up at this (incredibly) early stage of the NFL offseason. As expected when Kyle Shanahan discussed the importance of competition across the roster, we have seen multiple players rotating with one another so far, all being given the opportunity to make the best possible early impressions on Shanahan and his coaching staff. Given what we’re hearing, here are a few of my thoughts on where the 49ers are at right now with their roster.
Arik Armstead and the LEOs
Ever since it became clear that the 49ers were moving to the Seahawks style defense, a frequent buzzword that has flown around has been “LEO”, the position of the über athletic, Cliff Avril/Vic Beasley style pass rusher that seems to critical to the success of the scheme. Aaron Lynch was tabbed to be the guy, hunger permitting, with people like Eli Harold and Ahmad Brooks also possibilities.
Shockingly to many however, Arik Armstead was tabbed to be the LEO. Digging deeper, it makes some sense. We have heard on multiple occasions that though using the Seahawks’ defense as inspiration, the 49ers’ scheme will be unique to them. Armstead is clearly a beneficiary and likely a reason for this. Though not prototypical, Armstead is an über athlete with a great first step and the ability bend the edge, but rather than being around 6”3, he’s 6”7 and resultantly has a different set of athletic traits. Nevertheless, like the other LEOs, he’s a stud pass rusher, being the top ranked 3-4 defensive end in pass rushing productivity, often lining up at 5-tech (over the tackle). He could line up here, but is also likely to align slightly wider, which will present new challenges.
Reading between the lines from what Robert Saleh said on May 31st, the 49ers are content without being blown away by his progress thus far. He is physically in great shape but “he just needs to get more comfortable in the things that [the 49ers] are asking him to do”. This will mean that other guys will be given the opportunity.
Aaron Lynch could benefit if Armstead proves to be a poor fit at LEO. Lynch needs to shed some weight however, as he was clearly ineffective last season when out of shape and he could find himself in trouble come August if he’s still in poor shape. As a pass rush specialist, an inability to do just that could see him cut or well down the pecking order. If in good shape however, Lynch has the tools to be a stud pass rusher.
In addition to Lynch, the 49ers have Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, Tank Carradine and Pita Taumoepenu who could all play LEO. Carradine looks like he will be competing with Solomon Thomas as the strong side end (both smaller than the prospective weak-side Armstead, a kink of the 49ers’ scheme).
Brooks looks to be the number one SAM linebacker right now, backed up by Harold. Harold is athletically better suited to the LEO role than Brooks however, and the combination of being fully healed from his toe injury and playing in an aggressive scheme could really help Harold to improve significantly on his first two seasons. He could start to apply pressure to see the field as either a SAM or a LEO. Pita Taumoepenu received high praise from Robert Saleh, but as a pure speed guy seems likely to be restricted to a pass rushing only role, at least for now, so could play as a LEO (where you could have two of them in some packages) on passing downs.
The defensive backs
Rashard Robinson has received a glowing endorsement from Robert Saleh and appears certain, injury permitting, to be the 49ers’ number one cornerback. He has all the necessary traits and in a scheme that massively compliments his strengths, he could be poised for a breakout year.
A major competition is who plays across from him. Those attending practices have noted that currently Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser are battling it out, with Reaser reportedly playing better despite Johnson being the more prototypical build for this scheme. Expect that battle to continue and only intensify when Ahkello Witherspoon starts to work his way up the depth chart. The rookie third rounder is the new staff’s guy, and possesses all of the attributes to succeed on the outside. If Johnson and Reaser fail to differentiate themselves by the start of camp, then Witherspoon could overtake them.
Similarly, the competition for the nickel role could be intense, although thus far K’waun Williams has apparently seen the majority of the first string snaps. Will Redmond is a name to watch here, as is Reaser should he get beaten out on the outside. So far there has been very little word on Redmond, but we are likely to see and hear much more about him as we work through towards the regular season.
The safeties are an intriguing group. Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward are the presumed starters, at strong and free safety respectively. Both of them have been spoken about positively by the coaching staff. Jaquiski Tartt is an exciting option though his role is unclear. Based on Robert Saleh’s comments, it seems that the 49ers view him as more versatile, well rounded and mouldable than Reid – “his strong point is whatever you decide to make it” – potentially being able to play deeper or down in the box. It is unclear what “he’s playing a little bit of the third” means, though there would appear to be two possible scenarios. Firstly is that he is playing as a third safety, another 49ers’ kink, presumably in obvious passing situations where he would relieve one of the linebackers (see more below). The demands placed upon him here are essentially that of the strong safety anyway.
Alternatively, he could have been playing the deep third, i.e free safety, which is equally intriguing and would suggest the team have real faith in him as an eraser. Saleh essentially calling him a tweener don’t help us much either, but it would arguably be more relevant to call a free-strong safety hybrid in this scheme a tweener, than a strong safety-linebacker hybrid such as the similarity between the latter two in terms of responsibilities and build. We will have to see, but Tartt could become a key chess piece for the 49ers.
The focus here will actually be on the off-ball linebackers, the WILL and the MIKE. Currently, they are Malcolm Smith and Navorro Bowman respectively, with Reuben Foster recovering from shoulder surgery and Ray-Ray Armstrong and Brock Coyle also in the mix. Smith is the faster of the two currently “starting”, and has apparently shown greater coverage ability thus far, with Bowman reportedly struggling at times in coverage. This could of course be rust but does pose some dilemmas for the team, though the answers are arguably on the roster.
Firstly, we would expect Foster to beat out Smith at some point before the start of the regular season. Despite lacking NFL experience and Smith’s prior knowledge of the scheme, Foster is arguably a superior player at this point already. The praise for his understanding of his responsibilities further serves to illustrate the likelihood that Foster is probably the second best linebacker on this team, and could prove to be better in coverage than Bowman.
Furthermore, given Bowman’s struggles in coverage, we could see the 49ers utilising a dime defense, where Jaquiski Tartt comes in and essentially plays as a second strong safety/WILL linebacker (the roles are essentially the same in coverage) with Foster or Smith playing as a MIKE linebacker. Training camp and exhibition matches will bring more clarity here, as well as offering a continued opportunity to look at how Coyle and Armstrong could affect the 49ers’ plans going forward.
The nose tackles
Free agent pickup Earl Mitchell is expected to be the guy here, but there would appear to be a competition for the role brewing. Chris Jones, who certainly improved the 49ers defense when he played last season, has been spoken highly of by his coaches so far this offseason.
Jones can certainly be disruptive, and demonstrated the ability to react quickest to the snap and get into the backfield last season, an ability that has caught the coaches’ eyes this offseason. If he continues to be impactful in practice, it would not be a significant surprise to see him rewarded with a far more even split of the snaps than could have been predicted for him a few months ago, if not even being a starter over Mitchell.
Additionally, Jones’ namesake, D.J. Jones, a rookie, could also potentially start to work his way into the rotation. He displays Grady Jarrett-esque athleticism and over the course of the offseason we could see Jones begin to work his own way into the conversation for more regular snaps. The younger Jones has the traits to be a disruptive force along the interior, but will likely need a little time to find his feet in the NFL, so it should not be considered a disappointment if he comes out at the bottom of the nose tackle competition, at least at the end of August.
The presence of Quinton Dial arguably makes this competition one of the most intense on the roster. However, it is unclear quite how Dial fits into the 49ers’ plans – he is likely a nose tackle or a 3-tech tackle and could find himself falling on the wrong side of the roster cuts.
He lacks the pass rushing prowess to really threaten the 3-tech spot, and the presence of Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead on the roster could mean that Dial’s only chance to stick is as a nose tackle. The addition of a free agent pickup, a rookie draft pick and the extremely positive first impressions made by Chris Jones may see him at an early disadvantage. Nevertheless, Dial has undoubted NFL quality and could well beat out Chris Jones. The two of them could be competing for one roster spot by the end of August.