Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players this season takes a look at rookie edge rusher Pita Taumoepenu and his chance to make a splash in 2017.
Despite a deep 2017 NFL Draft class at edge rusher, the San Francisco 49ers waited until Round 6 to land a pure EDGE in former Utah pass-rusher Pita Taumoepenu.
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein projected Taumoepenu to be a seventh-round pickup, or even an undrafted free agent, so perhaps the Niners made a bit of a reach here. But after tying for 19th in the NFL last season, with 33 sacks, it’s clear San Francisco needed to have a bigger presence off the edge.
At 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, though, Taumoepenu may not have the size to live up to that kind of role on a regular basis.
Taumoepenu’s collegiate numbers, especially his senior year, are solid enough to suggest he can make a moderate impact:
Those nine sacks and 12 tackles for a loss last year are noteworthy. And the good thing is Taumoepenu has more than enough speed and agility to make up for his smallish size.
With San Francisco facing more pass-rushing questions heading into this season, what kind of role should we expect for the rookie?
Why He’ll Improve
As noted, speed and agility are the best attributes behind Taumoepenu’s game.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, the edge rusher ended up finishing with a 4.67 40-yard time and a 6.91 three-cone drill time — the latter ranking second among all participating defensive linemen.
You can see this quickness in some of Taumoepenu’s collegiate sacks below:
The Niners won’t ask Taumoepenu to do much more than operate in pass-rushing situations.
And this fits his skill set, where it is right now, at least according to Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Deeney:
The lack of size is also something that may be negated somewhat by the 49ers’ use of a 4-3 defensive front, where edge rushers can afford to be a little undersized, relying more on quickness and athleticism.
Perhaps this is the kind of scenario where Taumoepenu’s stock rises.
Why He’ll Regress
Size aside, Taumoepenu’s pass-rushing moves aren’t anything close to the elite-level kind seen at the NFL level.
And Zierlein broke down some of the problems Taumoepenu might face within the pro ranks:
"Has no chance of channeling speed-to-power as a pass rusher. Pass rush plan is lacking. Face-up rushing style will require cleaner hand usage to create some openings. Ducks head into contact as a tackler and allows too many broken tackles."
The latter part of the scouting report all but eliminates Taumoepenu from run formations, especially considering how bad the Niners were at tackling last season.
Another thing to worry about is how well Taumoepenu will be able to develop an inside move. Many of his collegiate sacks got around the edge. It worked at Utah, but NFL outside tackles shouldn’t have too much trouble pushing the smaller EDGE behind the pocket.
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What to Expect in 2017
The Niners are going to try returning veterans Aaron Lynch and Arik Armstead at this EDGE position in pass formations. Adding veteran pass-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil in free agency also takes snaps away from Taumoepenu, should the rookie make the roster.
Insofar as a roster spot, Taumoepenu’s chances should be pretty good. Teams never have too many pass-rushers, and one has to think the Niners would rather give a spot to a player of Taumoepenu’s caliber than a holdover from San Francisco’s previous regime.
But a big question mark, as to whether or not he’ll be on the 53-man group, will be if Taumoepenu can contribute on special teams.
His makeup, physically, suggests he can. And this is a good thing for his chances moving forward.
Taumoepenu has a long way to go before emerging as an even decent pass-rushing option. But if the raw skill set can be developed into something useful, the rookie should wind up playing a noteworthy role within the next two seasons.