49ers roster 2021: When can Jordan Willis return from suspension?

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) runs by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Jordan Willis (78) Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) runs by San Francisco 49ers defensive end Jordan Willis (78) Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers pass-rushing depth took a hit when Jordan Willis was slapped for a PED-related suspension, prompting questions about his return.

In an ideal world, the San Francisco 49ers wouldn’t need reserve EDGE Jordan Willis for a high-profile assignment in 2021.

But as the 2020 Niners knew too well, there’s no such thing as an ideal world when it comes to an NFL regular season.

San Francisco traded for Willis after losing pass-rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa early in 2020 to season-ending injuries, acquiring the former third-round pick in an October trade with the New York Jets to supplement a suddenly depleted pass rush. And Willis, who never quite caught on with the Jets or the team that drafted him in 2017, the Cincinnati Bengals, managed to make a noticeable impact after being acquired, registering a career-high 2.5 sacks with the 49ers last season.

Jordan Willis Defense & Fumbles Table
2 yr2 yrCIN3221012.045321387
2 yr2 yrNYJ110111.074302
1 yr1 yrSFO702.5625

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 8/2/2021.

So it shouldn’t have been too big a surprise the Niners re-signed Willis to a one-year deal this offseason, especially with injury-related questions still surrounding Bosa and Ford heading into 2021.

But that was all before Willis was slapped for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, removing him from regular-season play for the first six games of the upcoming season.

While he can still partake in practices and training camp, Willis will start the year on the reserve/suspended list.

Yet that’s not the whole story.

Can Jordan Willis actually improve with 49ers in 2021?

The crux of the context is the fact Willis won’t be available until Week 8 when San Francisco visits the Chicago Bears, accounting for the 49ers’ Week 6 bye.

If Willis is reactivated to the roster for that game and manages to play the rest of the season as a situational pass-rusher, is it possible he winds up making a substantial impact?

At 26 years old, Willis is still young. And unlike the situations he had with both the Bengals and Jets, he won’t be tasked with taking on high-profile duties, rather assuming those situational roles behind a still-stacked Niners defensive line that’s gotten both Bosa and Ford back from their respective injuries.

That’s good. And if one can recall the kind of role now-Jets defensive end Ronald Blair played for the team in 2018 and 2019, it’s possible San Francisco is envisioning Willis doing much of the same.

Even if it’s for an abbreviated part of the upcoming season.

Will Jordan Willis stay on 49ers roster, though?

In some ways, Willis being placed on a six-game PED suspension is a blessing, as he’ll be a midseason reserve call-up. He won’t count against the 53-man roster during his suspension and could feasibly alleviate any depth or injury concerns the 49ers have at that point.

If he stays on the roster, though.

That one-year deal was at a veteran’s minimum salary and carries zero in guarantees and zero in dead money if he ends up being cut.

Willis’ chances of hanging around would have been better if either Ford or Bosa were experiencing setbacks in their recovery. But with both returning in training camp, suddenly the Niners’ pass-rushing depth looks a lot deeper.

A player like Arden Key might wind up assuming that Blair-like role over Willis this season. But Key, who has just three sacks over his own underwhelming career, could also flame out at any point between camp and the regular season, perhaps struggling on game days and opening up the door for a much-welcomed Willis return.

Or it could be Key who assumes those rotational duties, too, making Willis an unneeded commodity.

Either way, Willis’ future is uncertain at best, and the only known fact at this point is he’ll be off the roster for the first six games of 2021.

Perhaps never to return.

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