SF 49ers roster: Kevin Givens might be a key piece in 2021

San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Kevin Givens (90) Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Kevin Givens (90) Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports /

The bulk of focus surrounding the roughly 40 pending SF 49ers free agents this offseason has centered around the big-name players, mainly names like fullback Kyle Juszczyk, left tackle Trent Williams and cornerback Richard Sherman.

Lost in the mix a bit, however, is the reality the Niners probably won’t be able to retain starting nose tackle D.J. Jones, who rose from an unheralded sixth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft to become one of the key cogs in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s defensive line the last three years.

It isn’t the case where San Francisco doesn’t like Jones enough to keep him. Rather other pressing roster needs, and the fact Jones will probably look to cash in as much as possible on his first free-agent deal essentially price him out of the SF 49ers’ financial comfort range.

With only $9.4 million in projected cap space for 2021, according to Over the Cap, the Niners are going to need to save that money for both more important free agents and to ink their upcoming NFL Draft class.

Simply put, there’s not enough cash to re-sign Jones.

One of the many nuances associated with keeping a playoff-caliber roster atop the competition is being able to find cheaper options who can fill voids of older, increasingly expensive players. While San Francisco might not have an option to replace Juszczyk or Williams, it does have a likable option to replace Jones.

Backup defensive tackle Kevin Givens.

Givens, the 2019 undrafted free agent out of Penn State, saw his role increase dramatically over his rookie season. In 2020, Givens appeared in 13 games, starting one of them, where he recorded 19 tackles, five of them for a loss, with three quarterback hits, a sack and a fumble recovery. It was a massive boost in production from his rookie year when he was only on the field for 10 defensive snaps.

In some ways, it was almost as if the SF 49ers were planning on meshing Givens into a would-be starting role to replace Jones in 2021. Whereas Jones saw 40 percent of the defense’s snaps last season, Givens wasn’t far behind at 37 percent. This was partially due to the injury attrition the Niners D-line experienced over the course of the year, but a similar context is likely to play itself out this upcoming season.

Jones isn’t the only pending free agent San Francisco is poised to lose this offseason. Defensive end Solomon Thomas‘ rookie contract is coming to a close, defensive tackle Kerry Hyder is poised to hit the open market along with injured defensive end Ronald Blair.

Needless to say, the SF 49ers D-line depth chart is going to look vastly different than it did when Givens joined the fray in 2019.

If there’s good news here, the 6-foot-1, 285-pound Givens flashed enough stopping power, both against the run and the pass, to suggest he’ll be an effective starting-caliber nose tackle next season and someone likable enough to replace Jones, who ascended from down the depth chart into a starting role, too.

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As long as things pan out well enough, Givens will be the latest example for how those roster nuances can effectively be met.