Why the 49ers Can Expect a Breakout Year from Tank Carradine

Sep 1, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Kellen Clemens (10) throws a pass as tackle Tyreek Burwell (78) blocks San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Tank Carradine (95) during the first half of the game at Qualcomm Stadium. San Francisco won 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 1, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Kellen Clemens (10) throws a pass as tackle Tyreek Burwell (78) blocks San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Tank Carradine (95) during the first half of the game at Qualcomm Stadium. San Francisco won 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports /

Miscast as a 3-4 defensive end, Tank Carradine has so far struggled with the 49ers, now at outside linebacker, he is poised for a breakout year.

One of many players to be taken by Trent Baalke despite suffering a torn ACL in college, Tank Carradine has yet to fulfill his potential with the San Francisco 49ers.

He is not alone. Carradine and Keith Reaser are the only members of Baalke’s “Team ACL” on the 49ers’ active roster. And the production from that pair has been minimal.

Having played as a 4-3 defensive end at Florida State, the 49ers selected Carradine with a second-round pick in 2013 and, after redshirting him his rookie year, converted him to 3-4 end.

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The switch was not a successful one. Carradine recorded just four sacks his first two seasons and the 49ers recognized their mistake.

Now in 2016, Carradine is playing where he expected to as a pro – outside linebacker.

He is enjoying this latest position change, and is feeling the benefits of dropping the weight he packed on to play in the trenches, per the San Jose Mercury News.

"I feel so much different, the only thing I’m still trying to adjust to is dropping in coverage and things like that. I actually like it better. I’m able to do more — set the edge, rush the passer, drop and cover guys. I feel more healthy. When I was 300, 305, it seemed like after every play I was tired. I didn’t feel like me."

Niners head coach Chip Kelly also believes the switch is going well, having seen Carradine create pressure and record two sacks in preseason.

“I think Tank has really taken to it, playing on his feet, setting edges,” Kelly said. “He’s a physical force when it comes to rushing the quarterback. He’s an outside linebacker in what we do defensively.”

Carradine has flourished in preseason. And the Niners have made a move to ensure he does not hit the open market at the end of the campaign, locking him down to a one-year extension through the 2017 season.

In doing so, the 49ers are betting on Carradine to succeed. And the evidence from preseason suggests they are correct to do so.

Carradine, according to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, was the second-most productive pass-rusher among all edge defenders in the preseason, with only teammate Marcus Rush – now on the Niners’ practice squad – ahead of him.

Breaking Down the Film

It’s not difficult to see why Carradine was able to generate such consistent pressure in the preseason, with his impressive usage of his hands a big takeaway from his play in the exhibition schedule.

While he was dropped weight, Carradine has not lost any strength. Here in the preseason opener with the Houston Texas, he fights off one blocker and then is able to extend his arms and shove away another pass protector, closing to the quarterback and only just missing out on a sack:

The way he was able to outmuscle Houston’s linemen with his hands was no fluke, as Carradine continued to utilize his hands to excellent effect against the Denver Broncos.

On this first play, Carradine is able to sack Mark Sanchez and draw a fumble. He is helped by the jittery Sanchez displaying a lack of pocket presence and stepping into the pressure. But Carradine still showcases his strength to disengage from his blocker quickly and make the play.

In the same game, Carradine hurries the quarterback despite getting a below-average jump off the snap.

Carradine does not meet his opponent with much in the way of power but quickly scuttles to the left with little wasted movement while ripping his hands away from the pass protector to get around the edge and force the quarterback into an off-target throw that could have been intercepted.

This should be particularly encouraging for the 49ers, as it demonstrates that Carradine can formulate a plan B and does not always need speed and power to beat his man.

Yet when Carradine does rely purely on speed and power, he can be very difficult to stop. And the Green Bay Packers learned that the hard way.

The following play from the Packers preseason game has drawn attention for Aaron Rodgers’ demonstration on his continued proclivity for escapability in how he evades Carradine.

However, the most noteworthy aspect of this play, is how Carradine converts speed to power in brutal fashion to drive the right tackle back towards Rodgers:

Carradine was actually flagged for illegal hands to the face. But that should not take away from a startling display of brute force on his part.

Though he was not able to get to Rodgers, he did record a sack against the Packers, exhibiting his short-area speed to blow by Green Bay tight end Richard Rodgers and bring down backup Joe Callahan:

While Carradine looks far from comfortable in pass coverage, he supplements his efforts as a pass-rusher with strong play against the run.

Indeed, Carradine has looked a capable edge setter and, as evidenced by this play against the San Diego Chargers, can read the run game to find the ball-carrier even when occupied by a blocker:

Projection for 2016

Carradine playing the run well is important for the 49ers, as he will likely see much of his action in sub packages, where San Francisco has been particularly susceptible to the ground game.

The 49ers gave up 5.13 yards per carry when defending the run in sub packages last season, per Pro Football Focus.

Carradine being able to hold his own against the ground game could help bring that number down. But his primary responsibility will be to get after the quarterback.

His form in preseason indicates he will have success doing that. Carradine looks explosive, can quickly translate speed into power, makes very good use of his hands and appears to have a plan in his head when pass rushing, which should enable him to stay in the play even if his initial rush stalls.

With that combination of abilities, expect Carradine to disrupt the quarterback on a regular basis in 2016 and for his sack numbers to inflate, finally giving Baalke somebody who could be considered a successful member of Team ACL.

Next: Rams vs. 49ers: 5 Reasons San Francisco Wins in Week 1

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro Football Reference and Sports Reference unless otherwise indicated.