The 49ers may want linebacker Jonas Griffith for their practice squad in 2020, but there’s a chance he plays a key role in 2021.
Former Indiana State linebacker Jonas Griffith came to the San Francisco 49ers by way of undrafted free agency following the Niners’ selection of five rookie prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft.
UDFAs typically have a much tougher road to a 53-man roster than drafted players, and the vast majority of them end up being part of pre-Week 1 roster cuts with the outside chance of being stashed on the practice squad in their rookie seasons.
And this might be exactly what San Francisco wants to do with Griffith.
At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, the 23-year-old Griffith seems to have the body for what coordinator Robert Saleh used for a strong-side (SAM) linebacker in his 4-3 Under defense in 2017 and 2018. Yet Saleh changed things up in 2019, backing off this linebacker into a more traditional stack role and lessening the need for bigger-body types here.
That said, Griffith did his share to stand out within FCS ranks prior to joining the 49ers as an undrafted free agent.
Over 44 games and five seasons at Indiana State, Griffith registered 382 tackles, including 50 for a loss, 14 sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions en route to being named a 2019 first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference player.
Yet San Francisco’s linebacker room is awfully crowded, meaning Griffith will have an exceptionally long way to go to stand a chance making the cut this season.
Why Jonas Griffith improves with 49ers in 2020
Being a playmaker is one of the best was an FCS prospect can stand out for the NFL ranks, and you can get the idea of his impact when Indiana State faced off against Louisville back in 2018:
Griffith displayed the traits teams like in linebackers, constantly being around the ball and using good pursuit angles. He showed a knack for penetrating blockers when needed, and it was comforting to see him play both up against the line of scrimmage and back off it, too.
On top of that, Griffith’s physical traits are notable. He benched an impressive 27 reps during his pro day, then ran an excellent 4.62 40-yard time, too, with a 4.34 20-yard shuttle.
If Griffith can capitalize on his athleticism, also displaying the all-around production he enjoyed at the college level, it’ll be tough for San Francisco’s coaching staff to relegate him to the depths of the 90-man offseason roster.
Why Jonas Griffith regresses with 49ers in 2020
One of the aspects of Griffith’s game, at least in the above game tape, was he’d be caught out of position at time, particularly when diagnosing a running back’s cuts and cutbacks. More than once, Griffith would bite on an early juke, allowing a runner to get beyond the linebacker for an additional gain.
There was also a little bit of hesitancy to his game. Instead of reading plays early, Griffith would frequently wait to let plays come to him, at times losing that vital early step.
Griffith might have gotten away with that within the FCS ranks, thanks to his excellent physical makeup. But those traits won’t do him any good at the pro level, and working on those instincts might take longer than the Niners would otherwise prefer.
Jonas Griffith’s chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster in 2020
As noted, Griffith has an uphill climb to have a shot at being on the roster in Week 1. San Francisco’s starting linebacker trio is set with Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw, while backups Azeez Al-Shaair, Mark Nzeocha, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and Joe Walker have a leg up in the reserve roles.
Al-Shaair, Nzeocha and Walker are all established as special teamers, too, meaning Griffith has to master that aspect of his game to stand the remotest of chances.
That’s likely not going to happen, at least in terms of putting the entire package together in time for 2020, meaning Griffith’s best chance this season would be named to the practice squad.
There is, however, a chance the 49ers make an aging and expensive Alexander a cap casualty as soon as 2021, though, opening up a spot on the depth chart and potentially seeing Griffith climb the ranks from the practice squad into a weekly reserve on the active roster.
This is perhaps what San Francisco wants to do, banking of Griffith’s first-year development turning into something useful in due time.