49ers DE Jonathan Kongbo a player to watch in training camp

Jonathan Kongbo #2 of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Photo by Brent Just/Getty Images)
Jonathan Kongbo #2 of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Photo by Brent Just/Getty Images) /

Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series focuses on former CFL defensive end Jonathan Kongbo and whether or not the 49ers can make use of this raw talent.

The San Francisco 49ers aren’t foreign to the idea of grabbing former CFL players and turning them into well-known stars. Arguably the best player in franchise history to fall into this category is quarterback Jeff Garcia, who performed his duties admirably in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

That’s not likely the trajectory for a player the Niners added to a reserve/future contract last January, defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, who joined the team, first after a promising JUCO tenure, then after a three-year collegiate campaign at the University of Tennessee where he managed 3.5 sacks and even recorded two interceptions:

Jonathan Kongbo Defense & Fumbles Table
TacklesDef IntFumbles

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 7/14/2020.

After going undrafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, the 6-foot-5, 254-pound lineman took his talents north of the border, joining the Winnipeg Blue Bombers where he appeared in 12 games, recording 12 tackles and a sack en route to the team securing a Grey Cup championship.

Yet Kongbo left the Blue Bombers in pursuit of an NFL career, eventually finding his way to San Francisco this offseason.

What’s there to like about Kongbo, who is unrefined yet appears to have the traits to develop as a situational pass-rusher?

Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series dives deeper.

Why Jonathan Kongbo improves with 49ers in 2020

Kongbo’s frame is suited for a top-quality edge rusher, which is good news. And despite his relative lack of experience, there are some pass-rushing moves in his arsenal which should translate well over to the NFL ranks:

Kongbo didn’t participate in the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine. But at his pro day, he recorded a solid 19 bench-press reps of 225 pounds. So there’s some strength there, too.

Working alongside 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek could also have its merits, as Kocurek has a knack for getting the most out of untapped potential from less-known players. A case example was a riser from the Niners’ 2019 preseason, defensive end Damontre Moore, who also flashed in limited usage.

Perhaps that’s the goal for Kongbo, who simply needs to put the pieces together. As far as pass-rushers go, one could argue it’s the easiest of things to do when compared to other positions on the field.

Why Jonathan Kongbo regresses with 49ers

It’s one thing to have many of the tools needed for success within the pro ranks. It’s another to ensure they translate into success.

Despite Kongbo’s turbulent journey to the NFL, the stats alone reveal he’s not exactly a sack specialist. Sure, pressures and tackles for a loss mean something, too. But Kongbo would have increased his stock if he had been able to get to quarterbacks with more regularity.

If anything, looking at the above tape, it seems Kongbo would regularly be a victim of simply being pushed behind the pocket rather than being a constant presence within it.

Plus, the Niners defensive line remains stacked heading into 2020. There are a number of depth names with whom Kongbo could compete, but it’s likely he’ll be pegged for third- and fourth-string reps during training camp, which won’t help his development much at all.

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

Kongbo faces a massive climb in order to make San Francisco’s 53-man roster this season, and the likeliest of guesses has him as a long shot. For starters, he’ll have to overtake established veteran depth pieces like Ronald Blair, Jullian Taylor, Kentavius Street, Kevin Givens and Willie Henry Jr., among others, to stand a remote chance.

If there is an opening, however, it’ll likely be due to injury. Blair, Taylor and Street are all coming off season-ending injuries from a year ago, and their respective recoveries could find some setbacks.

Yet Kongbo also has an injury history, too, which prevented him from performing the full course of workouts during his pro day. That doesn’t bode well either.

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The likeliest of outcomes for Kongbo this season would be to see some action very late in one or both of the Niners’ preseason games, potentially landing on the practice squad as a developmental piece.

If Kongbo hones his skills there, however, the 49ers could find themselves with a useful situational pass-rushing in coming seasons down the road.