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49ers 2018 Positional Breakdown: Defensive Tackle / Interior Line

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49ers DT DeForest Buckner
© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

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:

Offense: Running Back | Quarterback | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Line

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.

[Update] On July 25, the 49ers waived Woodson and signed veteran defensive tackles Will Sutton and Cedric Thornton.

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.

Chris Wilson is the Lead Writer for Locked on 49ers, a FanRag Sports network partner. You may have seen Chris’ work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at FanSided, NinerNoise, 49erswebzone, Insidethe49 and others. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgawilson.

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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: Rapid React To Week 15 Overtime Win vs Seattle Seahawks

Brian Peacock

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© Kyle Terada -USA TODAY Sports

Podcast for Monday, December 17

  • Takeaways and game balls from San Francisco’s 26-23 victory
  • Richard Sherman revenge game
  • Special teams accounts for 20 points
  • DeForest Buckner has maybe his best game in San Francisco
  • Updated draft position

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San Francisco 49ers

49ers Film Room: Rookie Safety Marcell Harris’ second NFL start

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49ers Film Room: Marcell Harris
© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A week after a rough debut, San Francisco 49ers strong safety Marcell Harris made major strides in his second NFL start. Locked on 49ers’ Chris Wilson breaks down the rookie defensive back’s game film from the Niners’ Week 14 matchup against the Denver Broncos.

With their playoff hopes in the rear-view mirror, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch set a youth movement in motion for the remainder of the 2018 regular season. Proven veterans like Pierre Garcon, Malcolm Smith and Earl Mitchell have been relegated to the bench or shut down for the remainder of the year due to injury, opening the door for the 49ers’ batch of rookies and second-year players to prove their worth.

One of those rookies is strong safety Marcell Harris, San Francisco’s sixth-round draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The 49ers believe they received the defensive back at a discount, as Harris’ draft stock suffered after he missed his senior season due to a torn Achilles tendon. Harris — who started just nine games at the University of Florida — is a raw talent who played best as a box safety in college, and was projected to be a mid-round prospect prior to his injury.

After beginning the 2018 NFL regular season on injured reserve, Harris was activated by the 49ers last month, but was primarily used on special teams over his first three games. However, injuries to three of San Francisco’s safeties thrust Harris into a starting role against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13. Unfortunately, Harris didn’t impress in his starting debut, which is somewhat expected from a player with limited college action who hadn’t seen the field in nearly two years.

But with the rust knocked off and another week under his belt, Harris looked like a different player against the Denver Broncos. After missing three tackles the previous week, which was reflected in his 25.6 tackling grade from Pro Football Focus, Harris racked up seven tackles and received a tackling grade of 80.1 from PFF in Week 14. While he’s far from a complete project, Harris demonstrated the athleticism, instincts and attitude that made the 49ers’ front office choose to take a flier on the talented prospect.

Let’s break down some of San Francisco 49ers safety Marcell Harris’ Week 14 game film, and highlight both the good and the bad from the rookie’s second NFL start:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Off the Edge in Run Defense

49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh lined Harris up close to the line of scrimmage for the majority of Sunday’s contest. In fact, Harris played on the line —  in 7-technique or off the edge — as often as he lined up in a traditional deep safety role.

When on the line or stacked next to the 49ers’ two inside linebackers, Harris worked closely with the team’s front four linemen against the run — particularly with defensive end Solomon Thomas. On our first play, Thomas does most of the work by blowing up the pulling guard, which forces running back Royce Freeman outside. After taking a moment to properly diagnose the play, Harris gets around the edge and reaches the ball carrier before tight end Matt LaCosse has time to cross the formation to impact the play:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Saves DE Solomon Thomas

While Thomas made Harris’ job a lot easier in our first example, on the following play, Harris makes up for Thomas’ mistake in run defense. When the ball is snapped, right tackle Jared Veldheer goes straight to the second level while fullback Andy Janovich passes in front of quarterback Case Keenum toward the wide side of the field. Thomas decides to split between the two blockers and run down the line of scrimmage, until he realizes the Broncos’ end around is heading toward the area he vacated. Thomas leaves Harris all alone on the outside to defend the run, with a pair of blockers between the safety and the ball carrier. But Harris quickly diagnoses the play, sidesteps Veldheer and heads toward the edge. Once Janovich overcommits to the outside, Harris cuts behind him and quickly brings wide receiver Courtland Sutton down for a loss:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris as a “Robber”

Although Harris has fairly limited football experience, he knows how to play as a “robber,” and excelled at the position during his time in Florida. Saleh has the 49ers line up in a two-deep look, as both linebacker Fred Warner and nickel corner D.J. Reed use outside leverage in an attempt to bait Keenum into attacking the vacant middle of the field. As the ball is snapped, Reed gives wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton an unimpeded inside release, as Harris crashes down to jump the route. Keenum keys in on Hamilton, and by the time he recognizes the 49ers’ defensive play, pressure forces the QB to exit the pocket and throw the ball away:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Comes up to Deliver a Big Hit

When Harris lines up deep in a two safety look, he doesn’t always look comfortable in pass coverage, but he’s quick to head downhill and make his presence felt by an opposing receiver. With the 49ers in Cover 2, Keenum steps up and hits Sutton on a short pass across the middle. The wideout avoids linebacker Elijah Lee with a quick move inside, but then finds a willing tackler in Harris, who travels down from deep in the secondary to deliver a big hit on Sutton. The rookies quickly get face-to-face to share some choice words but the situation doesn’t escalate, as Harris demonstrates the desired combination of intensity and self-control teams look for in a hard-hitting defender:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris’ Football Instincts Prevent a Big Play

If you simply watched the television broadcast of this play, you’d think Harris made a dangerous mistake in coverage, but this was actually one of Harris’ top plays of the day. Thinking run, Harris initially attacks the line of scrimmage, which leaves him shallow in the flat, but in a decent position to defend against the lone receiver in his vicinity. However, after Lee bites hard on the play-action, he totally loses his bearings. Lee turns backward, searching for a receiver in the secondary, and misses Sutton crossing in front of him, despite Warner’s warning. Luckily, Harris peeks back and sees Sutton crossing the field uncovered. As Keenum readies himself for the pass, Harris turns and quickly catches up with the wideout as he streaks down the sideline. With his intended receiver covered, Keenum checks down to the flat vacated by Harris, but miscommunication between the QB and his running back causes the pass to fall incomplete:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Gets Pancaked by RB Phillip Lindsay

Blitzing off the edge wasn’t one of Harris’ strong suits in college, as the safety logged just a single sack over his three seasons at the University of Florida. Harris has the physical ability for the job — particularly when he faces a 5-foot-7, 184-pound running back — but his technique needs improvement. Instead of firing off the line, Harris hesitates slightly when LaCosse lets him run free, leaving RB Phillip Lindsay to block the blitzing safety. Then, instead of running through the smaller blocker, Harris hesitates again before making a move to the outside. Lindsay engages Harris at the perfect moment, and plants the 208-pound safety into the turf:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Doesn’t Save DE Ronald Blair

This time, Harris bites on the play-action as defensive end Ronald Blair — similar to Thomas on the previous play — splits between the tackle and fullback and runs down the line of scrimmage. Harris tries to change direction once he realizes his mistake, but slips, allowing left tackle Garett Bolles to take a shot at the safety. With Harris caught inside, wide receiver Tim Patrick is free to follow his lead blocker for a Broncos first down:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris’ Poor Technique in Zone Coverage

At times on Sunday, it was evident that Sunday’s matchup was Harris’ second NFL start, and that the young safety is learning a new defensive scheme. Harris does well in getting outside the No. 2 receiver, although free safety Antone Exum would have appreciated if his fellow safety redirected Sutton on his way to the flat instead of allowing the wideout to run unimpeded up the field. With no receivers in his area, Harris looks for work, but he turns away from the quarterback instead of simply sinking back to help cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

Harris’ poor technique on this play creates a number of problems. By letting Sutton run free up the field, Exum is forced down to defend the hole behind the sinking inside linebackers. With Exum focused on Sutton, Witherspoon has to be prepared for a potential home run post route by Hamilton, but with Harris trailing the wideout, Witherspoon thinks he’s free to commit to the deep middle as soon as Hamilton cuts inside. Meanwhile, Harris bails on his deep coverage, as he sees Witherspoon in position to defend Hamilton’s post route. Unfortunately, Harris turns back to the QB at the worst possible moment — too late to see Keenum release the pass in his direction and too late to see Hamilton cut outside toward the sideline. With Harris spun around and Witherspoon overcommitted deep, an accurate pass would have meant a long reception for the Broncos, but luckily, Kennum air-mails the ball out-of-bounds:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Gets Picked in Man Coverage

With San Francisco lined up for a double-A-gap blitz, Harris is in man coverage against LaCosse, while Reed is tighter to the line against wide receiver River Cracraft. Both defenders are lined up with inside leverage to protect against a short pass over the middle, given the vacancy left by the blitzing linebackers. Both receivers release to the inside after the snap, but Cracraft quickly cuts between the two defenders in an attempt to distance Harris from his man. A small shove from the wideout is enough to create ample separation for LaCosse, who looks back for the pass as Harris struggles to recover. But instead of hitting his open tight end, Keenum locks on to wide receiver Andre Holmes, and as the quarterback tries to buy extra time by climbing the pocket, he’s hit from behind by edge rusher Cassius Marsh:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Ends Denver’s Fourth-Quarter Drive

When the pressure was on during a key fourth-quarter drive, Harris was at his best, as the rookie made crucial stops on three consecutive plays. On second down, the Broncos task Patrick with blocking the safety in order to free up an extra lineman to double-team 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. After the snap, Harris uses his strength and proper leverage to push Patrick back and off to the side, before disengaging and filling the hole, bringing Freeman to the ground for a short gain:

After failing to learn their lesson on second down, Denver attempts to use Patrick against Harris on another inside run on third down. Patrick doesn’t have a chance, as Harris beats him off the line and into the Broncos’ backfield. Patrick grabs Harris and tackles him to the ground, but not before the safety brings Freeman down in the backfield for a loss:

On fourth down, the Broncos decide to get the ball into the hands of their most electric playmaker, Lindsay. Since it worked before, Denver tries another pick play against Harris, who lines up across from the running back. The Broncos flood the boundary side of the field with all five receivers, but Keenum’s first look is Lindsay, who runs a “flat-7” concept with LaCosse. Both Harris and Lee are on the same page, as Harris cheats toward the outside, and Lee steps up to defend against a potential draw play. As the ball is snapped, both Lindsay and Harris sprint toward the flat. LaCosse tries to release outside and into Harris’ path, but Witherspoon engages and pushes the tight end back inside, as Harris fights through the rub in Lindsay’s direction. Keenum hits the back of his drop and fires the ball to his running back, but as soon as Lindsay catches the pass, Harris spins him to the ground short of the sticks.

For more on San Francisco 49ers safety Marcell Harris, check out Friday’s Locked on 49ers podcast, as host Brian Peacock and guest Chris Wilson discuss the rookie’s breakout performance in Week 14.

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San Francisco 49ers

Niners boast several Pro Bowl hopefuls despite difficult season

Jon Chik

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49ers Fullback Kyle Juszczyk

For a team with only three wins, San Francisco has a surprising number of players that could be bound for Orlando next month. Some would be making their first trip, and some mainstays would once again be heading back. With rosters set to be announce this Tuesday, we’re looking at several of San Francisco’s superstars to be included on the Pro Bowl squad.

George Kittle (No prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 69 receptions, 1,103 yards, 4 TDs

The skinny: What. A. Season. Following Kittle’s strong conclusion to the 2017 campaign, 49er Faithful entered this year with high expectations for the second-year tight end, but nobody could have been ready for this.

Kittle has taken the league by storm, showing an incredible catch radius, soft hands and surprising breakaway speed after the catch. Factor in his superb run blocking, and the argument could be made that he’s the best all-around tight end in football. Yes, including Travis Kelce.

Given the lack of production from San Francisco’s wideouts, Kittle’s importance to the Niner offense cannot be understated.

Signature performance: As if there was any doubt who was the top tight end in the NFC, Kittle exploded in San Francisco’s last game before Pro Bowl voting concluded, racking up 210 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions against an overwhelmed Denver defense in Week 14. Displaying otherworldly athleticism for a man his size, Kittle was all over the gridiron and fell just shy of breaking Shannon Sharpe’s single-game record for receiving yards by a tight end.

Long-term prospects: Kittle has emerged as the crown jewel of John Lynch’s first two draft classes, an absolute steal of a fifth-round draft pick if ever there was one. The Iowa product flashed some receiving skills late in 2017 and has thoroughly dominated defenses in 2018 with the greatest single-season ever by a San Francisco tight end. All signs point to this being the first of many, many Pro Bowls for the second-year man, and if Niner fans have their way, Kittle will be a focal point of this offense for the next decade.

Joe Staley (Six prior Pro Bowl selections)

The skinny: Just call him “The Constant.” Through the many ups, downs, twists and turns the 49ers have experienced throughout Joe’s 12-year tenure with the franchise, Staley has simply been a beast.

The 34-year-old has shown few signs of wear and tear, as he’s PFF’s fifth-ranked offensive tackle with a mark of 82.5.

While detractors could make the argument that Staley would be headed to Orlando in part because of his reputation, the 34-year-old has been a vital cog in an offensive line that has assisted undrafted second-year back Matt Breida to 5.6 yards per carry.

Signature performance: In Nick Mullens’ professional debut on Thursday Night Football against the Raiders in Week 9, the San Francisco offensive line was charged with the task of keeping the inexperienced signal-caller upright. Staley and company did exactly that, not permitting a sack on the night, giving Mullens plenty of space to step into his throws and allowing him to throw for 262 yards and three scores.

Long-term prospects: Staley has just one year remaining on his contract, so 49er Faithful can expect at least one more great season from the reliable mauler. If Staley’s health holds up and he continues to perform, perhaps the San Francisco brass can coax him into one final short-term contract. But even if he decides to hang ‘em up after next year, he will undoubtedly go down as one of the best offensive linemen in 49er history and should have a ticket to Cooperstown.

Mike McGlinchey (No prior Pro Bowl selections)

The skinny: The “younger brother of Joe Staley,” McGlinchey has lived up to the lofty expectations that come with being a top-10 overall pick in the draft and then some, as he’s PFF’s fifth-ranked offensive tackle in run-blocking and has performed better than expected in pass protection.

McGlinchey, who played left tackle in college, is likely to shift back over to his natural position whenever Staley calls it a career, but for now, San Francisco will enjoy having arguably the best offensive tackle combination in football, and McGlinchey has been instrumental in springing running backs for big gainers (San Francisco has 53 rushes of 10-plus yards, which is fourth-most in the NFL).

Signature performance: McGlinchey’s worth was on full display in his second pro game when Matt Breida exploded for 138 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries. McGlinchey’s dominant run-blocking made it possible for the undersized running back to get outside and do serious damage in the victory.

Long-term prospects: Along with Kittle, McGlinchey looks like one of the elite draft picks of the Lynch-Shanahan era. To be a successful NFL franchise, you need to knock it out of the park with your early-round picks, and San Francisco has seemingly done just that with McGlinchey. He’s just 13 games into his NFL career, but there’s no reason to believe the 23-year-old won’t continue to flourish into the one of the league’s elite offensive tackles.

Kyle Juszczyk (Two prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 28 receptions, 306 yards, 1 TD

The skinny: In a day an age when his position has been largely phased out across the league, Kyle Juszczyk is a throwback battering ram who shows that fullbacks can still make an impact when used correctly.

Though he doesn’t have a lot of competition (only five fullbacks have played enough snaps to qualify for PFF’s rankings, and only two of those reside in the NFC), Juice is far and away the league’s premier player at his position.

His run-blocking has once again been exceptional (75.4 PFF grade), and he’s a reliable weapon in the passing game, despite not getting a ton of targets.

Signature performance: Juice posted season highs in receptions (six) and yards (75) while picking up 12 yards on his lone carry against the Cardinals in Week 5. Thanks in part to Juszczyk, Matt Breida racked up 56 yards on eight carries in the same game.

Long-term prospects: The 27-year-old is under contract with San Francisco for another two seasons and is primed to make $9.25 million total over that time span. That may appear a bit pricey for a fullback at first glance, but Juszczyk is the best at his position in the NFL, and it will be money well spent so long as Shanahan continues to dial up plays that take advantage of the Harvard product’s excellent run-blocking and versatility.

Richard Sherman (Four prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 29 tackles, four passes defensed, one fumble recovery

The skinny: It didn’t take long for Sherm to alleviate any concerns about his Achilles injury from the previous season. Seeing 49er Faithful’s former public enemy No. 1 don the red and gold took a moment to get used to, but he quickly won over the fans by routinely shutting down opposing wideouts and looking very much like the Sherman of old.

As was the case during his days in Seattle, Sherman is rarely targeted, as opposing offenses fear his ball-hawking skills and would rather pick on the rest of San Francisco’s underachieving secondary. His weekly blanket coverage essentially takes an entire chunk of the field away from opposing signal-callers.

Signature performance: Even on a night when Aaron Rodgers toasted the 49ers by going 25-for-46 for 425 yards and a pair of scores, he still wanted nothing to do with Sherman, who gave up nothing against one of the all-time greats.

Long-term prospects: Sherm signed a three-year, $27.15 million contract last season, but only $3 million came guaranteed, so the Niners still hold all the cards in what is an extremely team-friendly deal. Even so, Sherman will likely finish out his contract if he continues to play anywhere near as well as he has in 2018.

Father time is undefeated, and eventually Sherman may slip from the ranks of the truly elite corners in the NFL, but even if that happens sooner rather than later, he will still have an invaluable role with the 49ers due to his ability to read offenses and call out plays before they happen.

DeForest Buckner (No prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key Stats: 49 tackles, nine sacks, two passes defensed

The skinny: DeForest Buckner just keeps getting better. The third-year defensive tackle has already posted a career-high nine sacks along with 49 tackles and has consistently provided a push up the middle.

That DeFo has accomplished what he has this season while receiving little help from his linemates – other than Ronald Blair, who has come on lately and is up to 5.5 sacks — makes his likely double-digit sack total even more impressive. Just imagine what he could do if San Francisco addresses its lack of outside pass-rushers through the draft, which would presumably result in fewer double-teams for the first-time Pro Bowler.

Signature performance: DeFo exploded out of the starting blocks in Week 1 against the Vikings, posting 2.5 sacks and seven tackles. Since Buckner somewhat surprisingly only notched three sacks the season prior — despite racking up a league-high 19 quarterback hits — it was an early encouraging sign that Buckner’s sack totals would spike in 2018. Indeed, they have.

Long-term prospects: One of the lone bright spots on San Francisco’s defense, the 2016 first-rounder should be a fixture on San Francisco’s defensive line for years to come. With a defensive front that struggles to put heat on the quarterback, it’s scary to think where the unit might be without DeFo, and since elite pass-rushers rarely hit the open market in today’s NFL, keeping the 24-year-old bull-rusher in red and gold for many years to come should be a priority for San Francisco’s front office.

Robbie Gould (one prior Pro Bowl selection)

Key stats: Converted 25 of 26 field goals.

The skinny: Gould has been a model of consistency since signing with the 49ers prior to the start of last season, as he’s made 64 of 67 field goals in that time. He may very well be kicking better than he ever has in his potential Hall of Fame career.

Signature performance: Gould booted all three of his field goals and all three of his extra points between the uprights in Week 2 against the Lions. The Niners needed all six of those kicks in a narrow 30-27 victory.

Long-term prospects: Gould is 36 years old, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down since coming to San Francisco. He’s an impending free agent, but the Niners and Gould could easily come to an agreement to keep him by the bay for a few more seasons.

Mark Nzeocha (zero prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 18 tackles

The skinny: With fans from Germany stuffing the ballot box, Nzeocha’s entire native country seemingly has his back, and he could make it to Orlando as the special teamer. While there are special teamers with more tackles than the Wyoming product and he’s certainly benefiting from Germany’s support, it’s easy to feel good for a guy like Nzeocha, who entered the league as an unheralded linebacker.

Playing time has never come easy for the Dallas Cowboys’ 2015 seventh-round selection, but he’s persevered, has seen a small amount of playing time at linebacker for the 49ers while suiting up for all 13 games this season (151 snaps) and could be on his way to Orlando.

Signature performance: Nzeocha notched a season-high four tackles in a Week 10 tilt against the Giants.

Long-term prospects: Nzeocha signed a one-year deal with San Francisco in the offseason and is a candidate to return to the red and gold next season as a solid backup linebacker and strong special teams player.

Matt Breida (Zero prior Pro Bowl selections)

Key stats: 132 carries, 744 rushing yards, 5.6 YPC, 21 receptions, 209 receiving yards, 5 total TDs

The skinny: Breida looked well on his way to Orlando a few games into the campaign, but nagging injuries combined with his small frame have combined to limit his workload. Still, he’s one of the breakout stars on the 49ers, and there’s something to be said for someone who seizes an opportunity when it’s presented, as Breida has done in his two years with the red and gold after going undrafted in 2017.

He may not have the requisite yards to crack the Pro Bowl roster, but his ridiculous 5.6 yards per carry simply cannot be ignored.

Signature performance: If there was any question about who would be the feature back in the wake of Jerick McKinnon’s injury, Breida answered it in Week 2 against the Lions when he exploded for 138 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries. Breida, who added 21 yards on three receptions, allowed San Francisco to control the game flow, despite a late rally by the Detroit.

Long-term prospects: San Francisco will likely want to keep Breida around for the foreseeable future, especially considering that he’s signed for just $645K in 2019 before he’s slated to become a restricted free agent in 2020. His touches may be scaled back a bit next season with the impeding return of McKinnon, but Breida is certain to see a healthy helping of snaps, and he’s a big-play threat every time he touches the ball.

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