49ers roster 2021: Zach Kerr a potential free-agent steal

Zach Kerr #92 of the Carolina Panthers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Zach Kerr #92 of the Carolina Panthers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

The 49ers re-signed nose tackle D.J. Jones while also inking Zach Kerr the same day. But both could be an excellent rotational tandem entering 2021.

The San Francisco 49ers offered new contracts to two nose tackles on the very same day, March 23, not long after NFL free agency kicked off the start of the 2021 league new year.

The two players? Returning defensive tackle D.J. Jones and journeyman nose tackle Zach Kerr.

It was kind of interesting the Niners did this. Jones, who was an integral part of San Francisco’s defense the previous two-plus years, wasn’t necessarily a massive re-sign priority. But in the wake of now-dismissed legal troubles facing depth defensive tackle Kevin Givens, suddenly Jones’ value became more apparent.

And that possibly explained why Kerr, a 30-year-old former undrafted free agent out of Delaware, became another 49ers priority.

Zach Kerr Defense & Fumbles Table
3 yr3 yrIND3682115.5643826811
2 yr2 yrDEN27122.052252745
1 yr1 yrARI12310.01913612
1 yr1 yrCAR1342102.032112129

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/30/2021.

While no means pegged as a starter, Kerr could wind up being a key backup to a player like Jones this season, perhaps working in tandem as a rotational player to help guard against the younger, more-immersed Jones from suffering any sort of injury or increased wear.

After all, defensive line depth is always crucial no matter what the role.

On top of that, Kerr has shown he’s more than just a run-stuffing 1-technique nose tackle. While not a prolific pass-rusher, Kerr’s speed has proven valuable at creating an interior pass rush, evidenced by his nine quarterback hits with the Carolina Panthers a year ago.

But what kind of role will Kerr have if he ends up surviving roster cuts?

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

Why Zach Kerr latches on with 49ers in 2021

Givens broke out modestly in relief of Jones last year, but one could make a pretty easy argument Kerr is a notable upgrade with far more experience.

Last year, Pro Football Focus gave Kerr an excellent 84.1 overall grade with a 77.7 pass-rush mark, again proving the point he can offer more than just being a run-stopping interior lineman on base downs.

Related Story: 49ers emphasize speed in offseason free-agent moves

Yet one of the bigger reasons why the Niners signed Kerr last season was because of the lack of speed they had within this unit a year ago, namely due to the multitude of serious injuries suffered over the course of 2020.

While it was some time ago, Kerr’s 5.08 40-yard time back at his NFL Scouting Combine workouts was awfully impressive for a player now 6-foot-2 and 334 pounds. Watching him play in Carolina last year, it didn’t appear as if he lost a great deal of speed.

That speed, combined with his interior pass-rush prowess, could end up being the X-factor Kerr needs to maintain his spot on San Francisco’s depth chart.

Why Zach Kerr doesn’t quite meet what 49ers need in 2021

Kerr will turn 31 years old before the start of the regular season, so he’s clearly at that point where fans and analysts will start to wonder when age will catch up with him.

Last year’s PFF numbers is a good proving point that he’s still capable of playing at an above-average level. Yet the drop-off point for any defensive lineman can be awfully quick, and one should note Kerr hasn’t always been consistent with his pass-rushing prowess over the duration of his career.

Will the 49ers benefit from a nine-quarterback-hit kind of season? Or will Kerr revert back into generating two or three per year, which was the average leading up to 2020?

If it’s the latter, run-stopping nose tackles aren’t exactly hard to find. And the Niners still have the younger, cheaper Givens to count upon, too. While depth is important, it doesn’t seem likely San Francisco would use roster spots for three 1-technique defensive tackles.

Probably only two.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster, projected role

While it’ll certainly be less discussed during training camp than some of the other position battles, the nose tackle pecking order should be at least modestly interesting between Kerr, Jones and Givens.

Jones, who has a total of $1 million in guaranteed money for 2021, per Over the Cap, isn’t going anywhere unless he completely flames out in camp. So that essentially means the battle for the No. 2 spot should fall between Givens and Kerr.

Kerr might have the slight edge here, given he has $250,000 in guaranteed money on his contract. While that’s not enough to make him a lock, it certainly puts him on the stronger side of the roster bubble heading into training camp.

Simply put, it’ll have to take a lot from Givens to completely overtake a player like Kerr on the depth chart.

Should Kerr make the roster, he likely won’t see the career-high 37 percent of snaps he enjoyed with the Panthers last year, perhaps more like 20 percent in relief of Jones as San Francisco looks to keep both players as fresh as possible.

Still, that’s an important role, and Kerr could provide a key impact despite being an under-the-radar offseason addition.

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