49ers roster 2021: D.J. Jones has competition at nose tackle

San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle D.J. Jones (93) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle D.J. Jones (93) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

D.J. Jones has been a quality member of the 49ers defensive line since 2018, but he’ll face some stiff competition for field time in 2021.

Generally speaking, the San Francisco 49ers‘ 2017 NFL Draft class was a flop. The only true standout from that year’s class is All-Pro tight end George Kittle.

While nowhere near as prolific as Kittle, the Niners’ sixth-round pick from that year, nose tackle D.J. Jones, quietly rose from being a hopeful backup to becoming a quality starter at the position, essentially holding that role from 2018 through 2020.

Jones flashed his importance during San Francisco’s 2019 Super Bowl run in which he recorded two sacks, four tackles for a loss and a forced fumble:

D.J. Jones Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/29/2021.

In addition to being a quality run stopper, Jones showed he can be effective in pass-rushing situations, too. And while his sack totals will never get that high with him primarily being a base-down 1-technique player, it’s at least somewhat reassuring he’s more than just the proverbial “one-trick pony.”

That said, Jones has dealt with some injury concerns over his career, including being shelved in 2019 with a late-season ankle injury that forced him out of the 49ers’ playoff run. Those injuries also affected his 2020 campaign as well, although missing just two games shouldn’t be counted as a major flag.

Either way, the Niners brought Jones back on a one-year, $3.5 million contract with $1 million in guaranteed money.

In tandem, though, San Francisco also inked other defensive linemen such as Zach Kerr and Maurice Hurst, meaning Jones isn’t necessarily guaranteed a starting spot this season.

He’ll have to earn it.

Why D.J. Jones improves with 49ers in 2021

It’s year five of Jones’ professional career, and we’ve seen a steady increase in the traditional stats, suggesting a solid improvement trajectory.

From two sacks in 2019 to three last year, along with an increase in tackles for a loss and quarterback hits, one might suspect the 26-year-old defender is in a position where he can become more than just a base-down defender.

His supporting cast should improve, too.

The 49ers are anticipating second-year defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw making a massive leap in 2021, which should help alleviate some of the pressure on Jones on the inside. Same with a fully healthy EDGE, Nick Bosa, freeing up defensive end Arik Armstead to play his more natural interior position.

True, this could bump Jones off more sub packages. But that should also serve to keep him fresher.

Why D.J. Jones regresses with 49ers in 2021

The Niners aren’t lacking for competition at nose tackle heading into training camp.

Kevin Givens, the nose tackle who primarily backed up Jones last season, was one of the players first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans hyped during organized team activities. But Givens figures to be a role player anyway.

Instead, players like Kerr and Hurst could be bigger threats to Jones’ playing time.

Kerr, in particular, boasts better speed than Jones and doesn’t lack for an interior pass-rush prowess either.

Considering the attrition San Francisco suffered along its D-line last year, it’s possible all four of these players wind up on the 53-man roster in one form or another, and that could potentially push Jones away from the 419 defensive snaps he saw last season.

Projected role, impact for 49ers

Jones isn’t necessarily a lock to make the 53-man roster, considering how the 49ers inked two more quality interior linemen this offseason. But it would cost the Niners $3.25 million in dead money to cut Jones, so he has to be considered on the strongest possible side of the bubble. It would literally take a complete flameout or injury from Jones’ part for anything like that to happen.

The real question is where Jones will find himself on the depth chart and what kind of impact he’ll have.

A safe bet here would be as the starting 1-technique — a position he’s essentially held without much competition the last three years.

Yet Jones’ small-but-significant injury history essentially mandated San Francisco to guard against any future setbacks, leading to the offseason transactions for Kerr and Hurst. Hurst, a little more flexible as a 3-technique, might stand a better shot of sticking around.

Kerr, theoretically at least, could challenge Jones for a starting bid.

In all likelihood, however, the 49ers would lean towards Jones starting with Kerr as a backup. The Niners know Jones and value him, while Kerr is still proving his worth during offseason workouts.

And if Jones’ upward trajectory continues, he’ll remain one of those key unsung players vitally important to the team’s defense.

Next. Ranking 49ers' 10 best late-round NFL Draft picks in team history. dark