Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players in 2017 continues. And in this installment, we take a look at second-year D-lineman, Ronald Blair.
The San Francisco 49ers didn’t have a lot to brag about in 2016, but finding defensive lineman Ronald Blair in Round 5 of that year’s NFL Draft might have been one of a few bright spots.
Blair, a 6-foot-3, 272-pound defensive end out of Appalachian State, wasn’t exactly heralded as a top-tier pass-rusher a year ago.
And yet he might have been a hidden gem from an otherwise lackluster Niners draft class.
Just look at some pre-2016 season tweets from Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Deeney:
Blair saw limited action his rookie season, just 306 snaps over 16 regular-season games. He did, however, manage to post 11 tackles and three sacks. As an EDGE, Blair may have the tools to be a situational pass-rusher with the capability of rushing from the interior or around the edge this upcoming season.
What should we expect out of Blair in 2017?
San Francisco 49ers
Why He’ll Improve
Coaches often note players show the biggest improvement from their rookie to second-year seasons, so Blair already has that in his favor.
Three sacks in a situational role isn’t bad either. And if given more chances, Blair might actually see this number increase. San Francisco’s defensive line should be notably stronger this year in a couple of different ways.
The Niners improved their run defense by signing nose tackle Earl Mitchell, so teams may be forced to pass more often. In addition, linemen DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and rookie Solomon Thomas turn this group into a formidable unit.
When inserted in a rotational role, Blair should get some chances.
Why He’ll Regress
As PFF pointed out prior to the 2016 draft, Blair spent the majority of his time at Appalachian State as a 3-4 defensive end.
It’s possible Blair’s frame is a little too small for an ideal 4-3 DE. And he’s not quite fast enough for a good-to-elite EDGE player either.
While Blair is flexible enough to line up anywhere along the line, it’s not likely the 49ers would insert him in any situation where he’d be asked to stop the run. It’s not the best part of his skill set.
And with a crowded front seven, it might be difficult for the new Niners coaching staff to give Blair some reps.
What to Expect in 2017
Barring injury, Blair won’t pass over someone like Armstead or EDGE Aaron Lynch on the depth chart (even though Lynch has weight concerns). But it is good Blair can line up at various D-line positions, giving defensive coordinator Robert Saleh some options.
And the fit at EDGE shouldn’t be too much of a concern either. Saleh’s defense calls for 3-4 personnel in a 4-3 scheme, which describes Blair perfectly.
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What likely happens this season is Blair emerges as a situational pass-rusher as part of San Francisco’s D-line rotation.
Blair’s improvement, statistically, will largely hinge on the effectiveness of his remaining D-line teammates creating havoc up front. If they are able to lock up multiple defenders and allow Blair to rush in one-on-one matchups, the second-year pro could have a productive season in a reserve role.
And the Niners shouldn’t have any problem with such efforts.