Niner Noise continues its annual “Who Is?” series on 2017 San Francisco 49ers players. In this installment, we look at veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell and the role he’ll hold this season.
One of the first moves made by San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch this offseason was to bring in free-agent nose tackle Earl Mitchell.
The Niners handed Mitchell a four-year deal back on February 25.
Mitchell, 29 years old, started off his NFL career in 2010 as a third-round draft pick of the Houston Texans. He signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2014 and had a relatively productive career until last year, where a calf injury limited him to just nine games:
|4 yr||4 yr||HOU||63||17||4||1||2||3.5||81||53|
|3 yr||3 yr||MIA||37||21||1||2.0||47||25|
After giving up a franchise-worst 2,654 rushing yards last season, the Niners needed to address the run defense.
This is where Mitchell fits in, lining up as the team’s primary nose tackle in base formations.
But what else can we expect from the veteran, and what strengths and weaknesses does Mitchell bring to the table?
Why He’ll Improve
Despite being known primarily as a run-stuffing lineman, Mitchell’s 2016 Pro Football Focus run-defense grade came in at a lowly 39.2.
That’s not good at all. Especially considering the guy he’s replacing, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey, had a slightly higher number at 40.1. Yet it’s important to remember Mitchell saw limited action last season and was beset by injury.
But in 2014, PFF’s different grading metric (h/t Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald) had Mitchell graded out much more positively:
It’s possible Mitchell finds San Francisco’s 4-3 under alignment more beneficial to his abilities. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh prefers nose tackles to be built relatively low. At 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, Mitchell certainly fits the bill.
Meanwhile, the Niners hope Mitchell can return to his 2014 form in which he was one of the best nose tackles in the league.
Why He’ll Regress
While the 2014 numbers are a good enough indication Mitchell could improve, it’s impossible to overlook last year’s stats.
Aside from his first year in Miami, Mitchell never turned into a solid run-stuffing defensive lineman capable of eliminating any interior runs in base formations. In fact, Mitchell actually graded out better in the pass rush, posting a 74.9 mark in the process last year.
That’s nice and all, and it will help the 49ers to have more interior pass-rushers, but Mitchell won’t be featured in too many passing downs.
Coming off his injury last year also prompts some concern, which is likely why the Niners selected fellow nose tackle D.J. Jones in the NFL Draft and re-signed veteran NT Chris Jones this offseason.
What to Expect in 2017
Unless Mitchell re-aggravates his injury or has a horrendous training camp, he’ll be slotted as the team’s starting nose tackle.
A logical guess would suspect he shows some marginal improvement against the run compared to last year, and being fully healthy would go a long way in ensuring this is the case. Plus, added investments along San Francisco’s D-line over the past three years (Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, etc.) should make Mitchell’s job a bit easier.
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Yet one shouldn’t expect Mitchell to be a dominant interior force capable of setting the tone at the line of scrimmage.
He’s a good player — an upgrade from what the 49ers had previously.
But with the Niners still looking at their run defense as a primary area needing to be fixed from last season, Mitchell will have plenty of pressure on him to live up to the four-year deal.
If he can, San Francisco should be able to make strides addressing 2016’s biggest weakness.