The 49ers would love to have D.J. Jones return in 2022 after his best year as a pro, but the pending free agent seems to be on the way out.
The San Francisco 49ers’ challenges in NFL free agency this offseason are nowhere near as challenging as the ones they faced a year ago.
But there are still some awfully tough choices general manager John Lynch and Co. will have to make.
Atop the list of pending free agents who could depart the Niners this offseason are Pro Bowl left guard Laken Tomlinson, veteran strong safety Jaquiski Tartt and the venerable nose tackle, D.J. Jones.
Jones, San Francisco’s sixth-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft, has quietly turned into one of the better interior defenders in the league, enjoying a fully healthy 2021 campaign in which he registered 56 tackles, 10 of which were for a loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles in what was essentially his best year as a pro after sticking around on a team-friendly one-year, $3.5 million contract last season.
The 49ers may get up to roughly $20 million in cap space once free agency hits, provided they trade or cut quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But re-signing Tomlinson and Tartt, who may be viewed as more vital pieces to the team’s overall roster this season, could easily make it impossible for Jones to be retained.
Lynch felt as much when speaking to reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine last week.
“If his objective is to stay here, he made it really hard,” Lynch said. “I do think it’s going to be challenging.”
This strays from many of the other comments Lynch has previously said about pending free agents the Niners want to maintain without question. Reading between the lines, it almost appears as if San Francisco is readying itself for life without Jones.
49ers options to replace D.J. Jones (if he leaves)
Finding a quality run-stuffing 1-technique nose tackle isn’t hard on the open market, and they usually come on the cheap, too, unlike high-profile edge rushers or prolific 3-technique defensive tackles.
But Jones has proven himself to be more than just a two-down lineman, also serving as a vital cog in the pass-rush department the last few years, too.
Targeting a lower-costing free agent might be in play for the 49ers, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see them go after someone in the NFL Draft either. Yet there are some on-roster options who could make a would-be Jones departure a bit more manageable.
Reserve nose tackle Kevin Givens, who played well while Jones was out with injuries for seven combined games between 2019 and 2020, is an exclusive-rights free agent and all but guaranteed to be back. The Niners may look to bring back veteran defensive tackle Maurice Hurst after he missed almost all of 2021 with a calf injury.
But the bigger kicker might be the maturation and continued development of defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, San Francisco’s top pick from the 2020 draft who was forced to exit last year early because of season-ending knee surgery.
Jones assumed much of Kinlaw’s would-be duties, so one could figure that would be the anticipated replacement plan.
Still, losing out on Jones (should that happen) is going to hurt, and it doesn’t sound as if the 49ers have the means to keep him as a top re-sign priority.