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.
Five Matchups to Watch in Preseason Clash with Houston
The race is on for starting gigs, playing time and roster spots, and the San Francisco 49ers’ second game of the preseason against the Houston Texans provides no shortage of intriguing matchups. Here are five to keep an eye on when the Niners embark into NRG Stadium.
Jimmy G vs. the Houston defense
Starting with kind of a broader battle here, as Jimmy Garoppolo steps onto the gridiron against a Houston defense that Pro Football Focus ranks eighth against the run and fifth in pass-rushing coming into this season. The unit boasts a plethora of household names and bona fide playmakers who can get after the quarterback, but the 25th-ranked secondary seemingly remains a weakness after struggling mightily in 2017.
We only got a brief glimpse at Jimmy G during last week’s home clash with the Dallas Cowboys, and the San Francisco signal-caller completed three-of-six passes for 34 yards, while his highlight of the night occurred when he stood in the pocket to absorb a big hit from stud defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and fired a strike to Marquise Goodwin for an 18-yard gain on third-and-10.
While Garoppolo fared well on his only series of the evening, he’ll likely play a bit deeper into Saturday’s clash with Houston, and if he can get passes away in a timely fashion, he could have his way with the Texans’ secondary.
Look for Jimmy to attempt at least one deep ball to Goodwin in the speedster’s mouth-watering matchup against Kevin Johnson, who ranked dead last among 120 qualified corners last season. Pierre Garcon, who is gradually building a rapport with Garoppolo after a slow start this offseason, also gets a good matchup against veteran Johnathan Joseph (the 64th-ranked cornerback with a grade of 67.4), and it would be a good sign if he and his quarterback show that they’re on the same page with a few connections in Week 2.
Jimmie Ward vs. DeAndre Hopkins
There are two reasons why we’re looking forward to this matchup.
One, Wednesday’s training camp fisticuffs.
Two, Jimmie Ward had a rough opener against Dallas, getting torched by third-round rookie Michael Gallup for a 30-yard touchdown and failing to keep up with Allen Hurns when he hauled in a short pass over the middle and hit the jets for a 13-yard gain on third-and-four.
Coming off a subpar performance, San Francisco’s “backup everything” needs to play much better if he wants to remain in the mix for significant regular season snaps and beat out K’Waun Williams for nickelback duties, and he’ll certainly be tested against Houston’s stable of dangerous pass-catchers, not the least of which is All Pro DeAndre Hopkins, who snagged 96 receptions for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017.
Even if he doesn’t line up directly opposite Hopkins (and PFF suggests the honor could fall to Ahkello Witherspoon), the two will still be on the gridiron together just three days after brawling in practice, and they could easily cross paths. Though they reportedly shook hands after each getting ejected from the joint practice, it’s impossible to know what will happen when the competitive juices once again start flowing.
Ward, who could see a good chunk of snaps since he’s entrenched in a multi-man battle for playing time, will be tested no matter who he’s covering, and he has a golden opportunity to all but erase the disappointments of the opener with a big-time performance against a squad that should boast a high-octane passing attack.
Richard Sherman vs. Will Fuller
Staying in the secondary, we move to the other side of the field where Richard Sherman could make his San Francisco debut in an interesting matchup against third-year man Will Fuller, who missed six games last season but still hauled in seven touchdowns while notching 28 receptions for 423 yards. While the abbreviated stat-line isn’t eye-popping, Fuller’s numbers are almost certain to spike with Deshaun Watson back in the fold, and he and the second-year quarterback will look to build a rapport at the expense of Sherman on Saturday.
Sherman’s San Francisco debut carries plenty of intrigue in and of itself, but given that he’s coming off last season’s Achilles injury and a hamstring ailment in training camp, a strong outing from the former Seahawk would alleviate some concerns from the Niner Faithful.
Kyle Shanahan may err on the side of caution and refrain from leaving Sherman on the field for too many snaps in a preseason game, but all eyes will be on the Niners’ prized free agent acquisition as he goes toe-to-toe with arguably one of the league’s most talented young wideouts. Even one or two pass breakups, a solid jam at the line or a sure-handed tackle in run support would go a long way to showing Sherman is healthy and good to go for the regular season.
Sherman isn’t a lock to dress Saturday after missing the preseason opener, but he was a full participant in San Francisco’s final open practice on Monday and in the two inter-squad practices with the Texans during the week, so here’s hoping Niner fans finally get to see him in game action.
Josh Garnett vs. the Houston defensive line
It’s sink or swim time for San Francisco’s 2016 first-rounder.
Assuming he suits up Saturday, it’s not totally inconceivable that he’ll draw the start since Mike Person’s roster spot is looking more secure by the day and because the San Francisco coaches may want to see how the 24-year-old will hold up against starting-caliber players. If Garnett doesn’t start, then he’ll be under even more pressure to perform against Houston’s twos and threes.
With Person playing well enough to earn the starting nod for San Francisco’s preseason opener and Jonathan Cooper and Erik Magnuson also in the mix, Garnett’s place on the 53-man roster is tenuous at best, but he can certainly raise his stock with a strong performance against Houston’s stout front seven.
San Francisco’s offense vs. the crowd noise
San Francisco gets its first taste of football on the road on Saturday, and in a campaign where the Niners travel to thunderously loud outdoor stadiums such as Seattle, Arizona and Kansas City and open with a dome game in Minnesota, the Niners will have to learn to cope with deafening crowd noise.
Of course, the Houstonites may not be quite as jacked up and vocal for a preseason matchup as they would be for the regular season, but it’s good practice all the same.
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