49ers training camp battle: The nose tackle position

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 20: Quinton Dial #92 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after a play against the Cincinnati Bengals during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 20, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 20: Quinton Dial #92 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after a play against the Cincinnati Bengals during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 20, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Between Earl Mitchell, Chris Jones, D.J. Jones and Quinton Dial, the San Francisco 49ers have some tough decisions to make at nose tackle this training camp. Niner Noise breaks it down.

The San Francisco 49ers had relatively few options at nose tackle to open up the 2016 season a year ago.

After a slew of offseason moves, things are vastly different heading into 2017.

One of general manager John Lynch’s first moves was to ink 29-year-old veteran Earl Mitchell to a four-year, $16 million contract, all but negating the need to keep an oft-injured Glenn Dorsey on the roster.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

Mitchell, who missed seven games in 2016, is in a good position to assume the starting job this season. But last year’s injury and a promising crop of potential starters could mean another option presents itself.

With training camp just around the corner, let’s take a look a how this position battle breaks down.

Earl Mitchell

One of the reasons the Niners signed Mitchell so early in the offseason was to address the team’s worst defensive issue a year ago — the run defense.

Mitchell’s 2016 Pro Football Focus run-defense grade wasn’t particularly great, 68.0, and some may wonder if his time with the Miami Dolphins saw more of a regression. Interestingly enough, Mitchell’s 2016 PFF marks were more favorable against the pass (80.4).

San Francisco is clearly hoping the 6-foot-1, 289-pound Mitchell returns more to his Houston Texans form this season.

D.J. Jones

While Mitchell might be the favored starter based off veteran prowess alone, the 49ers could have found a potential long-term replacement by selecting former Mississippi nose tackle D.J. Jones in Round 5 of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Similarly built to Mitchell — 6-foot-1 and 319 pounds, Jones fits the prototypical short-and-stocky defensive tackle defensive coordinator Robert Saleh would prefer in his 4-3 front.

According to his PFF draft profile, Jones isn’t particularly noteworthy in the pass rush. But that’s not the reason San Francisco took him.

As noted earlier, Jones’ abilities to stop the run are what count here.

While it might be a stretch to see Jones start in Week 1, he surely is a player to watch climb the depth chart in camp.

Chris Jones

While Mitchell and D.J. Jones have been receiving a good deal of press this offseason, fifth-year pro Chris Jones could easily be a dark-horse candidate to earn the starting job after training camp.

Jones was one of only a handful of good storylines within San Francisco’s front seven a year ago, finishing 2016 with a respectable 78.2 overall PFF grade on 205 total snaps. Like D.J. Jones, Chris Jones is better against the run. And that’s fine.

Yet Jones has the ability to double outside of the nose position, making him a strong candidate to emerge off the bubble watch after training camp.

So it makes sense the Niners inked him to a one-year deal after last season.

Quinton Dial

Like Jones, fifth-year veteran Quinton Dial has the versatility to play almost every position along the defensive line — an attribute the 49ers have used extensively over his career in San Francisco.

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Dial wasn’t particularly great in any one particular area last year, although it’s easy to see how he’s about as serviceable a commodity there is in a spot-starter or reserve role.

But at roughly $8.4 million over the next two years, one has to wonder if Dial is a bit too expensive as a backup. Granted, the Niners aren’t overly concerned about squeezing under the salary cap. Yet it’s worth exploring the possibility of San Francisco moving the veteran, and his contract, to lure in additional draft capital in 2018.

In a way, this is a win-win situation for San Francisco. Dial is worth keeping around as a start-worthy backup. And this also increases his trade value which, while not expected to be much, could still help out the 49ers’ long-term rebuild project.

Considering the Niners have Dial signed through 2019, they can afford to be picky with any offers between now and the trade deadline.

Next: Predicting the 49ers offensive line depth chart, starters

If no move takes place, Dial is all but guaranteed a spot on the roster to open up the season.