Over the offseason, we break down each of the San Francisco 49ers’ position groups for the upcoming 2018 NFL season. In this edition, we break down the big men on the interior of the Niners’ defensive line — the defensive tackles and nose tackles.
This is the seventh edition of our 49ers 2018 offseason positional breakdowns. Check out the rest of our position group breakdowns here:
Special Teams: Special Teams
The San Francisco 49ers opened training camp on Wednesday with an interior defensive line containing one of the NFL’s top players — along with a number of linemen fighting for playing time or roster spots. In total, the 49ers currently have eight players competing for an estimated four spots on the Niners’ initial 53-man roster. The final number of roster spots will likely depend on the versatility of the linemen, and whether any players can play on both the interior and exterior of the defensive line.
Let’s start with the San Francisco 49ers’ stud 3-technique defensive tackle:
DT DeForest Buckner
It didn’t take long for 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to enter the NFL’s elite. Buckner followed up a stellar rookie year with an improved 2017 season, which landed the lineman in NFL.com’s All-Under-25-Team, as well as Pro Football Focus’ list of the top 50 players heading into the 2018 season.
Buckner plays well against the run, but specifically excels against the pass, where he ranked third among all interior defenders last season, per PFF. Due to Buckner’s pass-rushing prowess, he rarely leaves the field, which forced the lineman to play 76.7 percent of the 49ers’ defensive snaps in 2017, after playing 87.3 percent in 2016. Due to his importance to the 49ers’ defense, San Francisco needs to limit Buckner’s snaps going forward in order to keep him fresh and effective, and to shield him from potential injury.
DT Sheldon Day
Flush with defensive linemen last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars waived second-year player Sheldon Day in November, and the 49ers jumped at the chance to add the former fourth-round draft pick to the roster. Day didn’t play poorly in Jacksonville, but simply appeared to be the odd man out of the NFL’s top defensive unit.
Day was familiar with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh from their shared time in Jacksonville, which allowed Day to make an immediate impact on the field for the 49ers. Day was Buckner’s backup at 3-technique defensive tackle, and also played a rotational role on the 49ers’ defensive line. Day should make the team’s initial 53-man roster and will likely play a similar role for the Niners in 2018.
NT Earl Mitchell
Earl Mitchell is one of those rare nose tackles who is better against the pass than the run. While Mitchell was PFF’s 29th best pass-rushing interior lineman in 2017, in a recent article ranking each team’s run defense, the PFF analysis team noted Mitchell’s 5.0 run-stop percentage last season was the worst of any NFL player with at least 300 snaps against the run.
Last February, 49ers general manager John Lynch‘s first significant personnel move was signing Mitchell to a 4-year, $16 million contract, after the Miami Dolphins parted ways with the defensive tackle due to a pair of lackluster seasons. Since the majority of Mitchell’s 2018 contract is guaranteed, cutting their starting nose tackle would cost the 49ers more in dead money than Mitchell’s current $3.9 million cap number. Releasing Mitchell in 2019 would cost the team just $1.5 million, so 2018 may be the big man’s last season in San Francisco.
NT D.J. Jones
Lynch and 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan drafted defensive tackle D.J. Jones in the sixth round of the 2017 draft. Jones was used as a rotational player on San Francisco’s defensive line last season — mostly replacing Mitchell on early downs during the 49ers’ first ten games — until Day’s signing and Tank Carradine‘s return from injury forced the rookie into inactive status for the remainder of the season.
At approximately 6-foot-1 and 320 pounds, Jones is shorter and heavier than Mitchell, and is a good physical fit for the 49ers’ nose tackle position. With 147 defensive snaps and a full NFL offseason under his belt, Jones will look to take Mitchell’s starting job during training camp and the preseason.
DT Jullian Taylor
Temple Owls defensive tackle Jullian Taylor was the 49ers’ first of two seventh-round selections in the 2018 NFL draft. At 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds, Taylor has the size necessary to play at the NFL level, and given his impressive pro-day numbers, he has the athletic ability as well.
When healthy in college, Taylor looked and played the part — however, injuries limited the defender to just 17 games over his four-year college career. If he’s able to stay healthy, Taylor could be a seventh-round steal for the 49ers, as the lineman has the measurables to potentially play on the inside as a 3-technique defensive tackle, and on the outside as a run-stopping “Big End.”
DT Blaine Woodson
Defensive tackle Blaine Woodson is the first of the 2018 undrafted free agents on the 49ers’ interior defensive line. At 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds, Woodson had the size necessary to be a disruptive force in college, but his lack of NFL-caliber size could prove problematic against NFL offensive linemen.
During his time at the University of Delaware, Woodson was a four-year starter and a three-time all-conference selection. While he was a productive player who was able to play a variety of positions on the line in college, he will likely require some development before he’s able to complete at the next level.
DT Will Sutton
Sutton played 36 games for the Chicago Bears, who drafted the 6-foot, 303 pound lineman in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but released him after the 2016 season. Sutton spent the 2017 preseason on the Minnesota Vikings’ roster, but was released prior to the beginning of the regular season.
DT Cedric Thornton
Thornton is a 7-year veteran who started three games for the Buffalo Bills last season. The 6-foot-3, 290 pound tackle spent five years with the Philadelphia Eagles before signing a lucrative four-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys, who released him after one disappointing season. Thornton has experience playing multiple positions on the line, including nose tackle, defensive tackle, and 3-4 defensive end.
DT Niles Scott
2018 undrafted free agent Niles Scott dominated opponents during his tenure at Maryland’s Fostburg State University. Scott logged double-digit sacks and 16 tackles-for-loss during his senior season, after producing similar numbers his junior year.
Scott — at 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds — is similar in size to Woodson, and will also need to play multiple positions on the Niners’ defensive line. While Scott was a small-school star in college, he’ll now be forced to face top linemen at the professional level. Scott will likely compete with Woodson for a spot on the 49ers’ practice squad in 2018.
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