49ers ‘Who Is?’ series: D.J. Jones to build on impressive 2019 campaign

Defensive tackle D.J. Jones #93 of the San Francisco (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Defensive tackle D.J. Jones #93 of the San Francisco (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The 49ers received an exemplary 2019 effort from D.J. Jones, and it’s fair to assume he’ll get even better this upcoming season.

While he’s not as famous as his teammate, tight end George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers nose tackle D.J. Jones is yet another example of general manager John Lynch’s success in landing quality impactful players late in the NFL Draft.

Jones, like Kittle, came to the Niners on day three of the 2017 draft, going in Round 6 out of Mississippi. Not long afterward, when Jones saw some limited time on the field his rookie season, it was pretty apparent Lynch and Co. had something notably useful and a player who could eventually replace then-starting nose tackle, Earl Mitchell.

Turns out, that’s exactly what happened entering 2019.

Jones earned a regular role as a starter, holding down the 1-technique nose position and doing much more than just serving as a quality interior run defender, picking up two sacks and four tackles for a loss over 11 games played:

D.J. Jones Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/10/2020.

Jones ended up being banged up late in the season, however, eventually landing on season-ending injured reserve with a high-ankle sprain after Week 14.

Projected to be fully healthy in 2020, is it possible Jones’ best efforts are yet to come? Or was his impressive 2019 outing more of an anomaly than anything else?

Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series takes a deeper look.

Why D.J. Jones improves with 49ers in 2020

The 25-year-old Jones’ arrow looked as if it was pointing up all along. During his rookie season, Jones received an overall grade of 56.5 from Pro Football Focus, which isn’t terrible for a first-year reserve player. In 2018, it shot up a bit to 59.1 and was only marred by a poorish 29.8 tackling grade.

In 2019, Jones seemed to rectify that, which translated to a very impressive 67.8 overall mark.

But what stood out even more was Jones’ interior pass rush, which never showed up any better than this Week 10 play versus the Seattle Seahawks where he completely pancakes Seattle’s center to get a sack on quarterback Russell Wilson:

No quarterback enjoys a strong interior pass rush, especially when it’s coming from a low-frame 6-foot-0, 305-pound lineman.

If Jones can capitalize on these interior pass-rushing abilities, he’ll be even better a player for San Francisco’s defense in 2020.

Why D.J. Jones regresses with 49ers in 2020

It’s hard to find reasons why Jones would seriously regress this upcoming season, barring the ever-present injury factor.

Jones hasn’t been known as a true prolific pass-rusher, and he had just seven quarterback hurries on the season, per PFF, suggesting those sack opportunities weren’t exactly happening on a frequent basis.

Opposing teams could opt to throw more against San Francisco this upcoming season, too, especially if its secondary winds up being a bit of a weakness, and Jones might be asked to rely more on his pass-rushing skills than his run-stopping abilities.

As such, it wouldn’t be a shocker to see Jones’ numbers take a slight hit.

Projected role with 49ers in 2020

Jones is a lock to make the roster, so there’s no questioning that element right there.

Last year, Jones primarily served as a 1-technique on base downs with some occasional field time when the 49ers were in sub packages. But that was when defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was lining up next to him.

Buckner is gone now, traded off to the Indianapolis Colts, and the Niners are hoping Buckner’s production can be replicated by their top pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. Yet assuming Kinlaw winds up being an every-down player right out of the gate is a bit premature, so it wouldn’t be a total shocker to see Jones’ own field time increase quite a bit.

Especially early in the season.

The bigger question for Jones, though, is his future after this upcoming season. He’ll be a free agent, and it’s anyone’s guess what his asking price will be on the free-agent market if he’s not re-signed.

Run-stopping interior defensive linemen aren’t difficult to find, and they can be had for relatively cheap.

Next. 3 surprise starters for 49ers defense in 2020. dark

But if Jones proves to be more than just a run stopper, the Niners may be pressed to keep around one of their better unsung defenders beyond this upcoming campaign.