49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Willie Henry a defensive line sleeper

Willie Henry #69 of the Baltimore Ravens (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Willie Henry #69 of the Baltimore Ravens (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) /

The 49ers will need an adequate backup for defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, and the seldom-discussed Willie Henry could provide it.

It didn’t generate a lot of headlines when the San Francisco 49ers inked defensive tackle Willie Henry to a reserve/futures contract back in January of 2020.

After all, Henry missed all of the 2019 season after being waived by the Baltimore Ravens — the team that initially drafted him in Round 4 of the 2016 NFL Draft.

Henry’s pro career following an impressive three-year collegiate campaign at Michigan started off with an injured-reserve designation his rookie year, bounced back strong enough in 2017, marked by his 3.5 sacks over the 14 games played his second season. But a hernia injury the following year limited him to only three games played, and he subsequently failed to make Baltimore’s 53-man roster last season:

Willie Henry Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/7/2020.

Now, the Niners are hoping they can cash in on something of a reclamation project.

Granted, San Francisco doesn’t have a ton of room within its already-stacked defensive line, which despite trading off Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner during the offseason, added another top prospect to fill the void in South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw.

Yet adding some depth behind Kinlaw could be one of the 49ers’ top motivations here. And while Henry flamed out too soon during his time with the Ravens, the 6-foot-3, 288-pound interior pass-rusher could find himself filling a key depth role for the Niners defense this season.

Here’s how Henry can go about securing that kind of role in 2020.

Why Willie Henry improves with 49ers in 2020

At 26 years old, San Francisco can still bank on Henry having some room to grow while capitalizing on his pre-2016 draft accolades set back in college.

Case in point, this Pro Football Focus scouting report tabs the kind of upside unique to Henry’s skill set:

"Not many interior defenders in the class can match Henry’s explosiveness and his upside as a pass rusher will make him a mid-round pick. He’s very unrefined though at the moment and may never be an every down run defender in the NFL."

On top of that, Henry earned a 10.2 pass-rushing productivity grade from PFF in 2015, which ranked seventh best among interior defenders coming out in that year’s class.

Henry would be joining a stacked 49ers defensive line, so there wouldn’t be a ton of pressure on him to perform above expectations. Plus, the Niners’ defensive line coach, Kris Kocurek, has a knack for getting the most out of players who may have been unable to latch on effectively elsewhere. Defensive lineman Damontre Moore was a perfect example last year.

Why Willie Henry regresses with 49ers in 2020

Injuries are the big factor here, and Henry comes with plenty of those question marks, which ultimately played a huge role in Baltimore electing to part ways with him.

A lesser expected role could help, but one has to weigh all the reasons why he didn’t work out with the Ravens along with missing the entirety of 2019, too. The Niners were the lone team to give him a chance after nearly a year away from football, and it’s anyone’s guess whether or not that’ll hurt or help Henry’s chances moving forward.

Plus, Henry’s time on the field in 2017 was good enough, but it was far from being labeled as a difference maker. PFF gave him better run-stopping grades in 2017 (68.6) than pass-rushing grades (61.9), and it’s not hard to find decent run-stoppers on the open market if Henry doesn’t pan out immediately in training camp.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster in 2020

The Niners have a void along the depth portions of their D-line interior, namely because of the free-agent departure of defensive tackle Sheldon Day to the Indianapolis Colts.

Day, unlike his fellow former Niners D-line teammates Jullian Taylor and Kentavius Street, was regularly called upon and filled an excellent niche role behind Buckner and nose tackle D.J. Jones. Depending on what happens with Taylor and Street moving forward, Henry could see his stock rise.

Especially if Kinlaw is taking some extra time adjusting to life at the next level.

But the fact remains Henry is still on the weaker side of the roster bubble heading into training camp. San Francisco has much more invested in both Taylor and Street thus far. And while neither have truly panned out as quality backups just yet, they do have a leg up in working within Kocurek’s system.

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That alone could push Henry off the roster altogether before Week 1, and he’d need an exceptional camp and preseason to stand the slightest of chances to hang around.