After adding Solomon Thomas with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, and having switched defensive schemes to a 4-3 under defense, the San Francisco 49ers defensive front seven is going to have a different look to it in 2017.
Now that free agency and the NFL Draft have more or less finished up, we have a better grasp of who is going to be on the San Francisco 49ers’ 53-man roster.
More specifically, we can predict who is going to play a major role in each respective positional group.
Transitioning from a 3-4 to the 4-3 base scheme means some outside linebackers in the old defense are going to be playing with a hand on the grass while playing defensive end. Additionally, some players, who played on the outside of the line, might have to kick inside to play the 3-technique.
All in all, there is going to be new personnel, managing a different defensive technique in San Francisco this season.
New defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will be implementing a 4-3 under defensive scheme that puts paramount importance on versatility on the line. This benefits the 49ers, as the current roster boasts several “tweeners,” as these players do not fit the prototypical frame of one specific position, but rather can play several.
For example, DeForest Buckner will likely play the 5-technique (strong side defensive end) in base formations and kick inside to the 3-technique (defensive tackle) on passing (blitzing) downs in order to provide pressure up the middle.
Let’s take a look at the current crop of players who look to fit on the defensive line in 2017:
- Arik Armstead (6’7″, 292 lbs, 23 y/o)
- Ronald Blair (6’4″, 270 lbs, 24 y/o)
- Ahmad Brooks (6’3″, 259 lbs, 33 y/o)
- DeForest Buckner (6’7″, 300 lbs, 23 y/o)
- Tank Carradine (6’4″, 270 lbs, 27 y/o)
- Quinton Dial (6’5″, 318 lbs, 26 y/o)
- Chris Jones (6’1″, 293 lbs, 26 y/o)
- D.J. Jones (6’1″, 321 lbs, 22 y/o)
- Aaron Lynch (6’6″, 270 lbs, 24 y/o)
- Earl Mitchell (6’3″, 310 lbs, 29 y/o)
- Pita Taumoepenu (6’1″, 245 lbs, 23 y/o)
- Solomon Thomas (6’3″, 256 lbs, 21 y/o)
With 12 players of differing size, experience and pedigree, it will be up to Saleh and the positional coaches to optimize the rotation to highlight strengths and minimize weaknesses.
This is achievable with frequent substitution and a healthy roster.
In order to highlight the roles each player will likely fill, I have categorized each player into a grouping: pass-rusher, tweener, nose-tackle and defensive end.
This group will be seen on passing downs. Although it’s critical getting to the quarterback on all downs, these players lack the ability to play effectively against the run and are therefore used to bury their head and get after the QB.
Tank Carradine — In his first four years in the league, he’s only brought the quarterback down four times. After being moved around in various 3-4 schemes, and having limited success, this might be Carradine’s final opportunity to prove he has more than just the frame and ability to become a solid pass-rusher.
Aaron Lynch — After starting his career with back-to-back six-plus sack seasons, Lynch’s production took a step backwards with only 1.5 sacks in seven games last year. Lynch will spend time at the LEO position and has a chance to be one of the 49ers primary pass rushers. Unfortunately, Lynch has come into camp 20 pounds overweight and is an early cut candidate.
Pita Taumoepenu — Taumoepenu displayed a consistent ability to haul the QB down in his four years at Utah. Whether he can do it at the NFL level is unknown, but we should see flashes of the Utah EDGE on passing downs throughout 2017.
Arik Armstead — Dealing with injuries in his two seasons, Armstead has only accumulated 4.5 sacks. But that figure is from only five career starts.
San Francisco 49ers
The potential is clearly there with Armstead, as PFF registered him with 21 hurries and three sacks in 186 pass-rush snaps. That’s an NFL-best 11.2 pass-rush productivity rating for 3-4 DEs. There has been chatter of Armstead competing at the LEO, 5-technique and 3-technique.
Ideally, he dominates one-on-ones on the edge and fills the hole at LEO.
Ahmad Brooks — Playing either the SAM linebacker position or the LEO, Brooks will have the primary role of getting at the QB on the defensive line. While sneakily accumulating six-plus sacks in six straight seasons, Brooks can be relied on to get to the QB from the EDGE position.
DeForest Buckner — Buckner is going to be a beast wherever he lines up in 2017. With a 73-tackle, six-sack rookie year, his ideal position will be in the 3-technique and the 5-technique. From here, he expects to dominate one-on-ones all year long.
Solomon Thomas — While likely lining up at the 5-technique in base downs, Thomas will kick inside on passing downs and create havoc down the middle. His relentless approach, coupled with his pure athleticism, should counteract any criticisms of his size.
Expect single-digit sacks, with a handful or pressures, hurries and tackles for a loss. His true value should come against the run, as PFF ranked him this draft’s No. 1 run defender.
These big men are going to be battling it out for playing time at the 1-technique. This player will serve as the primary run stopper on first down and will be critical in holding double teams and creating space for pass-rushers.
Quinton Dial – Standard 300-plus-pound run stopper. He is expected to do so in 2017. Anticipate Dial backing up Earl Mitchell at defensive tackle.
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Chris Jones — Slightly undersized, Jones will be deep on the 49ers D-line rotation and is expected to stop the run.
D.J. Jones- – Will be a rotational piece in the 49ers defense in 2017. Was effective against the run in the SEC, which generally projects well to the NFL.
Earl Mitchell — This 310-pound NFL journeyman hopes to find stability in the Bay Area. Saleh will look to him to anchor the run defense in 2017.
This player does not project to any position other than 4-3 DE. He will serve time in either the 5-technique or the LEO.
Ronald Blair — Second-year player our of Appalachian State, Blair looks to use the momentum from his solid three-sack rookie campaign to gain more playing time at the 5-technique and LEO.
With 12 linemen competing, Saleh hopes he can creatively use the versatility and depth to his advantage.