49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Can Ronald Blair bounce back from injury?

Ronald Blair #98 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Ronald Blair #98 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

Returning from injury will be crucial for 49ers defensive lineman Ronald Blair

Defensive lineman Ronald Blair was a big reason why the San Francisco 49ers defense was so potent in 2019.

Sure, there were plenty of other big names on the field, particularly defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and then-rookie EDGE Nick Bosa. But Blair’s presence provided a number of crucial attributes for the Niners defense, namely situational pass-rushing duties and a valuable piece to rotate in for the team’s depth.

At least for the first half of the season.

Blair, who was playing on a contract year, suffered a torn ACL during San Francisco’s Week 10 overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks. And while there was a silver lining on the play, sacking Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, one can only imagine Blair would have preferred staying healthy and helping the 49ers defense in its run up to Super Bowl LIV.

While the injury landed Blair on season-ending injured reserve, the Niners felt it necessary to keep his services around for a bit longer, giving him a one-year deal during the offseason.

Now, it’s up to Blair to ensure his recovery process goes smoothly while he looks to return to the kind of role in which he performed so well for the first half of 2019.

Why Ronald Blair Improves for 49ers in 2020

While Blair will never receive the kind of accolades handed out to players like Bosa and defensive tackle Arik Armstead, it’s pretty safe to say the Niners landed themselves a gem back in 2016 when they picked him up in Round 5 of that year’s NFL Draft.

Since then, Blair has been a versatile piece and regularly offered some solid pass-rushing skills to what’s been an up-and-down 49ers defense over the past few years:

Ronald Blair Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/4/2020.

Blair was on track to best his career-high sack total, set back in 2018, yet the injury got in the way. Up to that point, however, Pro Football Focus awarded Blair with a very good 77.5 overall grade on the season, showcasing defensive value against both the run and the pass.

One could make the assumption Blair enjoyed playing in defensive line coach Kris Kocurek’s wide-9 alignment, which allowed the slightly undersized Blair to operate from a number of different positions with a bit more space.

That seemed to play to his strengths last season.

Why Ronald Blair Regresses with 49ers in 2020

There’s the injury factor to keep in mind here, of course. And one could see how he might not be quite the same after tearing his ACL.

Especially against some of those mobile quarterbacks like Wilson, who do more than just force pass-rushers to move side to side in pursuit.

This could become a bit of a liability for Blair as he could lose a bit of his agility and flexibility, especially early on if his knee is still causing him issues.

On top of the injury worries, the Niners still have a lot of depth within their pass-rushing department, which includes the offseason addition of EDGE Kerry Hyder. Players like Hyder could take snaps away from Blair this season, particularly if the latter isn’t able to participate in training camp as much as he’d like.

Chances of Making the 53-Man Roster, Projected Role for 49ers in 2020

Blair is certainly on the roster bubble, but it’s heavily aimed towards the stronger side. San Francisco would owe more than $2.2 million in dead money if Blair is cut, although there’s always the possibility he starts off the year on the physically unable-to-play list and sits out for a while.

If he’s healthy, though, it seems highly likely Blair reverts back to the kind of role he held for the team a year ago.

And it was an important one.

Blair accounted for nearly 20 percent of the defense’s snaps in 2019, and that includes missing seven games due to injury. While Blair wasn’t a featured member of a stacked D-line, his rotational abilities and depth certainly helped. There were other factors in the mix, yes, but the Niners didn’t quite boast the prolific defensive front after Blair went down.

Next. 3 injured players who are X-factors for 49ers in 2020. dark

So Blair isn’t the only one banking on a bounce-back year. The 49ers are, too, and they’re hoping he can revert back to the kind of support player he was over the course of 2019.