Well faithful, in case you’ve been kidnapped or perhaps reside in a remote area with no type of access to the outside world, our beloved San Francisco 49ers are two weeks into the 2018 training camp. So yes, queue the “quest for six” campaign. Although 49ers have been on this harrowing quest for six going on 20+ years now, the necessary ingredients (to include the front office and coaching staff) are being added to cook up a Super Bowl caliber team.
Based upon reports, aside from some expected bumps and bruises, it’s been an action packed two weeks at the SAP Performance Facility, in sunny Santa Clara, California… But, let’s get back to the real reason you are here, the defensive line position battles. I’m your literary Uber, so jump in and make yourself comfortable as I do my part to make the ride as enjoyable as possible. During this ride, we will chop it up (bay area term meaning, discuss) about the status and progress of the defensive line and pass rush during training camp.
DeForest Buckner aka “DeFo” has been the most consistently dominant force along the 49ers defensive line. While his sack total did not scream elite (three sacks in 2017), he did spend a lot of time in the personal space of quarterbacks as he led the league in quarterback hits with 19. In defense of his declining sack total from his rookie season, DeFo has been a one man show and has had no consistent help. Unfortunately, what has been consistent is the double teams he draws on most plays. Thus far, if an offensive line can slow him down, the pass rush is non-existent.
Though his sack total decreased in 2017, he has continued to show his value and dominance within the defense as he makes his living rushing from the interior of the defensive line as the 3-technique defensive tackle (lined up on the weak side of the offense, aligned on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard in the B gap). DeFo finished 2017 with 45 tackles (29 solo), five pass defenses, three sacks, and one forced fumble. This year, with a more co-ordinated pass rush around him, look for DeFo turn almost sacks, into actual sacks. Furthermore, DeFo believes his own offseason work will help him in his endeavour to up his sack totals, stating,
“I really think it’s going to help me this year, especially working this offseason, finding that extra step-whether it’s footwork, getting my strength up in my lower half. I’m working on everything I can to get that extra step, so I can really finish those sacks.” (via Matt Maiocco).
Roster status: LOCK
Solomon Thomas looks to build on a modest rookie season where he showed tantalising ability to make plays. Thomas has shown he has a very high motor and is relentless when harassing the ball carrier. He’s proven to be most effective rushing from the passer from the inside but he appears a better run defender on the edge. If he continues to evolve, he’ll have an even bigger impact in the upcoming season regardless if he’s lined up inside or outside.
Per reports, Thomas will swap duties with Armstead. Thomas is set to line up at LEO on base downs and then kick inside on obvious passing downs (nickel package) to maximize his talents as a pass rusher. In a perfect world, the 49ers would play nickel most of the time. This would allow Thomas to be at his best rushing the passer from the defensive tackle spot using his quickness and strength facing bigger but slower guards. While not guaranteed, in a pass happy league with not many power run teams, nickel would be a best-case scenario for the defense.
Roster status: LOCK
Earl Mitchell is considered by some millennials to be “weak sauce”, as he was often put on skates and pushed backwards and escorted out of his gap on run plays. He did flash every so often to make a splash play however, showing some veteran nous alongside his physical traits.
The one play that comes to mind, is a play he made during a week 14 road game against the Houston Texans on a 4th & 1 play in the first half on the 49ers 40-yard line. Mitchell was lined up in a 1 technique (nose tackle), just off the right shoulder of the center. As the ball was snapped, Mitchell shot the A gap, and used a swim move as he beat the center and met Lamar Miller in the backfield for a 3-yard tackle for loss. The play forced a turnover on downs and the 49ers took over at their own 37-yard line.
While impressive, this type of play is called a “splash” play for a reason, as it doesn’t happen too often. Time will tell if his veteran status and splash plays will be enough to keep him in the starting lineup.
Though Mitchell is slated as a starter he will be pushed and possibly replaced by both Sheldon Day and DJ Jones. Day is younger and more cost effective and versatile than Mitchell. DJ Jones is also a name to keep in mind at that 1 technique spot. The youth movement and the money involved will weigh heavily on how things unfold for Mitchell.
Roster status: EXTREMELY STRONG BUBBLE
Arik Armstead has shown the potential to be dominant but has lacked consistent production, mostly due to injuries in three straight seasons. When healthy, Armstead has shown the quickness and disruptiveness it takes to make plays, but he can’t seem to stay healthy, so his full potential has yet to be seen or met. Not his fault, as injuries happen but it’s a known fact that in the NFL, the most important aspect of player analysis is what a player can do on the field to help the team. You know, “show me don’t tell me” per se.
While most fans are ready to move on from Armstead due to injury and/or lack of production and have even labeled him BFN (big for nothing), there are also some fans that believe in his ability. Speaking of injury, most recently Armstead is sidelined with a hamstring and is listed as week to week. (via NFL.com). Contrary to popular belief, the team seems to have more faith in what Armstead can do, versus what he has done. Only time will tell if he will live up to his potential.
Roster status: LOCK (if he can get healthy)/ BUBBLE (if his injury continues further into camp)
Sheldon Day saw his first action in 2017 shortly after being signed by the team in a week 12 home matchup versus the divisional rival Seattle Seahawks. Though the team lost, Day boosted the 49ers defense as he had an instant impact in both the passing and running game.
Originally looked at as a cast off and just another body to audition, Day has made a name for himself. Through six games in 2017, Day recorded 16 tackles, (8 solo), one sack, and one pass defense. While he didn’t stuff the stat sheet, he provided consistent disruption and pressure along the interior defensive line.
Day has the necessary skill set to help this 49ers defense return to greatness. He possesses great get-off, a high-motor, and good hands. If he plays to potential, whomever the edge rushers are will see less resistance as the offensive line will need to potentially double team multiple defenders on the interior. If Day can pick up where he left off in the middle next to DeFo, the two could very well be a formidable duo in the middle.
Roster status: LOCK
Ronald Blair was a fifth round pick out of Appalachian State University in the 2016 draft. As a four-year starter, he predominantly played 3-4 defensive end. He’s versatile enough to play anywhere on the defensive line from the 5-technique (or even further outside) on the edge down to 3 technique defensive tackle.
Some aren’t very fond of Blair as he has not shown a lot thus far, but he is relentless, has a motor that doesn’t stop, has a nose for the ball, and is consistently in the backfield when his number is called.
His skill set and rare combination of size, quickness, strength, and use of his hands suit him best as a strong side defensive end (big end) in the 4-3 under scheme of Robert Saleh. His ability to get off the ball as a track star comes out of their blocks to get his head up to find the ball carrier will aide him in setting the edge. He’ll squeeze the pocket from the outside and shut down the run on his side of the field.
Furthermore, Blair is playing with a chip on his shoulder as there is plenty of doubt and speculation in terms of his ability. Blair only appeared in six games (two starts) in 2017 due to injury. Although he’s not the best athlete, he has impressive versatility whilst possessing the motor, passion, effort, ability to disrupt, shed blocks that makes him a valuable commodity. Nevertheless, in a crowded defensive line group not short on talent, Blair will have to continue to grow and impress, as he seems to find himself below both Armstead and Jullian Taylor in the 49ers’ rotation at strong side end. With the team likely conscious that Solomon Thomas can also cover the position, Blair could well find himself on the outside looking in.
Roster status: BUBBLE
D.J. Jones possesses rare a combination of power, strength, reactive athleticism, and quickness. In addition, he also plays with great low pad level, enabling him to get under a blockers pads giving him an advantage against his opposite man. Jones may offer some versatility as he can play either the 1 technique nose tackle or 3-technique defensive tackle, but you sense the 49ers seem him primarily as a nose tackle, which might hinder his chances of making the 53.
Jones played nine games in 2017 as a rookie and looks to increase his snap count and become a key part of the defensive line rotation. As one of the few 1 technique nose tackles on the team, Jones has an opportunity to earn an increased role in 2018 with a strong camp and preseason. Nevertheless, he could find himself off the team.
Roster status: BUBBLE
Cassius Marsh made 49ers debut in a week 12 divisional game at home against the Seattle Seahawks. Marsh recorded modest numbers recording two tackles but did display some of the strengths from his pre-draft scouting report as his high motor and hustle showed on every snap. In six games with the 49ers, Marsh recorded 10 tackles, two forced fumbles, and two sacks.
In 2017, Marsh saw most of his work as a situational pass rusher on passing downs. He only recorded two sacks in six games, but he also recorded two forced fumbles in that same six games. Watching him come off the edge and turn the corner demonstrating his bend, indicated the 49ers’ pass rush might have some promise… My apologies, I got excited.
To ensure the message is clear, this is not a proclamation that he will be the next sack master or the answer to our pass rush woes. This is more so a statement to say he is definitely a talent at LEO that can provide a spark to the normally nonexistent pass rush. His passion alone is contagious as well as his work ethic. I’m looking forward to seeing how this pass rush performs in the 2018 season.
Roster status: LOCK
Jeremiah Attaochu is the newest of the possible pass rushers added to the roster but also one of the most intriguing as well. Thus far in his career, Attaochu has recorded 10 sacks since being drafted in 2014. Like most athletes, he too has been limited due to injuries. When he is healthy, you can see his talent – he has a knack for harassing quarterbacks. If you have yet to watch any film on this guy, do so. The talent is there.
While he has yet to hit his ceiling or his full potential, the 49ers believe he is in prime position and hungry enough to do so and excel as one of the teams LEO pass rushers. If he is 100%, there is no reason he should not both surpass his sack total over the last two seasons and contribute to the 49ers modest pass rush. Attaochu will indeed have his opportunity to show he is an asset to the defense and pass rush, and his athletic traits indicate he should have a good chance to improve over the poor efforts of the edge rushers currently on the 49ers’ roster.
Roster status: STRONG BUBBLE
Jullian Taylor is a seventh round (223rd overall) pick out of Temple university with tremendous upside. His fall in the draft had less to do with his ability and everything to do with his injury history. After suffering injuries in both his sophomore and junior years at Temple, Taylor played 12 games his senior year and impressed.
Standing 6-foot-4 and 295 lbs., Taylor is a natural 3-technique defensive tackle, but is talented enough to play and have an impact playing 5-technique big end as well.Though he has yet to take a snap this season, he has had a good camp thus far and created a decent buzz for himself. Prior to camp, his chances of seeing significant playing time or making the roster were slim. With a recent injury to Armstead and a strong camp performance, all that may change since he has been getting first team reps and appears to have taken his opportunity.
Taylor has great get off, is good at the point of attack, uses his arms/hands very well (keeping offensive lineman out of his frame), has impressive quickness, and possesses a motor that does not stop. If he can continue to impress in camp, continue to develop, and the opportunity to fill in for Armstead persists, Taylor just may find himself in great position to see snaps as a seventh-round pick.
Roster status: STRONG BUBBLE (DEFINITE PRACTICE SQUAD CANDIDATE IF HE DOESN’T MAKE THE 53)
The wrap up
Bottom line, the 49ers front four desperately needs an edge presence to produce some resemblance of a pass rush. Although this unit has added pieces both inside and along the edge, none of the additions are proven. This retooled defense also will have growing to do together to someday become dominant.
While many feel edge rushers are the key to this defense and creating pressure, the interior (defensive tackle and nose tackle) will be just as important to creating pressure. Think about it. When picking up pressure, offensive lineman are coached to block inside out, as the fastest way to the quarterback is right up the middle.
The more pressure from the interior, the more double teams that will be needed, and that potentially leaves the edge guys in one on one matchups. Picture DeFo or Day blowing up the middle and flushing the quarterback to the LEO or big end position coming off the edge with a full head of steam playing “race you to the quarterback”. Wonderful sight right?
If by chance everything goes as planned and this group plays to their individual potential as well as their potential, it could be one of the best. In the event things don’t quite go as planned, it may be another long season on defense. We shall see. For the sake of my nerves, I hope it all works out. Well, we have reached your destination, hope you enjoyed the ride. Til next time. Go Niners!
1. Deforest Buckner
2. Sheldon Day
3. Solomon Thomas
4. DJ Jones
5. Earl Mitchell
6. Jullian Taylor
7. Arik Armstead (given current status)