Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line

July 19, 2018

The 49ers spent significant resources this offseason to improve some glaring holes on their roster. The offensive line, secondary, and running back positions were all addressed in free agency and the draft. Heading into this offseason many fans and analysts alike believed the team would aggressively pursue an edge rusher, either through free agency or the draft. While the front office did bring in a few players to address needs along the defensive front, none of those players were viewed as a “pass rush” specialists that many people expected the team to acquire. We’ll take a look at what additions and subtractions were made along the line and what it could look like following OTA’s and into training camp

 

Additions

 

Jeremiah Attaochu

 

In the 2014 draft the San Diego Chargers used the 50th overall pick on Attaochu, a pass rush specialist out of Georgia Tech, he finished his college career as the team’s all-time leader in sacks with 31.5. In the 2016 draft San Diego used the 3rd pick on Joey Bosa, essentially burying Attaochu on the depth chart behind Bosa and Melvin Ingram. In 4 seasons with the Chargers he finished with 38 games played, 10 sacks with 2 forced fumbles. The 49ers gave the 25 year-old linebacker a one-year, $2.8 million contract. His signing is a low risk/high reward bargain the team is taking, Attaochu has the physical skills to excel as a pass rusher and hopefully a change in scenery is all he will need to fulfill his promise. He is currently the team leader in career sacks with 10.

 

Kentavius Street

 

Street was an intriguing defensive end prospect out of NC State. He played the “big end” position opposite 2018 first round pick Bradley Chubb. While Chubb was viewed as a more complete prospect, Street was able to turns heads at the NFL Combine with his physical traits. In 2017 at NC State Street was listed at 6’2”, 281 pounds and ran a 4.58 40-yard dash with a 40-inch vertical jump, 475-pound bench press, and 700-pound squat. Yeah. The downside for Street is that in April this year he tore his ACL during a private workout for the New York Giants. Prior to his injury Street was viewed as a mid-round pick and the 49ers selected him in the 4th round (128th overall). Street will be placed on the IR and miss his rookie season with the torn ACL but should factor into the defensive line significantly next season.

 

Julian Taylor

 

The 49ers used their first of two 7th round picks on defensive tackle Julian Taylor out of Temple. Taylor had an impressive pro day that put in on the radar of teams looking for competition during training camp. He lacks the preferred size for a defensive tackle weighting only 280 pounds. Taylor will have a difficult time making the 53 man roster and will most likely be placed on the practice squad.

 

Subtraction

 

Elvis Dumervil

 

On June 5th, 2017 the 49ers signed Dumervil as an unrestricted free agent to a two-year deal with a team option for the second year. In limited action as a situational pass rusher Dumervil at 13 tackles and 6.5 sacks, which lead the team. In March the team declined to exercise the option to retain Dumervil for the second year of his contract making him a free agent. He has yet to be signed and at this time has not announced his retirement.

 

Heading out of OTAs and into training camp the four spots on the defensive line seem locked in place. Nose tackle Earl Mitchell and 3-technique DeForest Buckner are entrenched as starters. Everything on the defensive line runs through Buckner, in 2017 he amassed 52 pressures with four sacks, with Pro Football Focus giving him a pass rush grade of 89.6, ranking him as their 3rd highest pass rusher from the interior. His overall grade of 90.4 was good for sixth overall among all interior defensive linemen. Mitchell will be pushed by second-year nose tackle D.J. Jones, Jones played 147 defensive snaps last year totaling ten tackles. Earl Mitchell with be 31 at the start of the season and  his dead money cap hit for 2019 is only $1.5 million. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jones’ snap totals climb this year as the coaching staff tries to figure out if he’s the future at the nose.

 

The two defensive end spots are also held down by returning starters. Arik Armstead will move to the “big end” position this season after the team tried him at the “Leo” last year with little success. Although Armstead hasn’t played a full season since 2015, his rookie year, the team showed confidence in his abilities by picking up the 5th year option on his rookie contract. There is little competition behind Armstead heading into training camp, defensive end Ronald Blair is currently penciled in as his back up. While Blair has shown flashes in play, he’s not a starting level defensive end, but Armstead may not be either. If Armstead fails to impress this training camp and preseason we may see the front office attempt to move him.

 

At the “Leo” position is former 3rd overall pick Solomon Thomas. Thomas was a failed experiment at the “big end” position last season. He played 333 defensive snaps there versus only 148 at “Leo.” The coaching staff is recommitting to playing Thomas at the “Leo” in 2018 on base downs and moving him inside next to Buckner on passing downs. At Stanford Thomas thrived as an interior rush defender and should show significant improvement in his second season as a pro. Don’t forget that Thomas was also a victim of the NFL’s ridiculous rule that underclassmen couldn’t join their teams for training camp until their school year was officially over, meaning Thomas missed a decent sized portion of his first training camp. With a full training camp under his belt and playing a position that better suits his skillset he should be poised to make a jump in production.

 

While those four players are technically considered the starting defensive line, by now we’ve all heard the saying “nickel is the new base” as teams are running more spread offenses that forces defenses into more traditional pass defense alignments. So, the expectation is that we see Thomas next to Buckner on the interior and Mitchell is pushed to the sideline. Taking Thomas’ spot on the edge will be Cassius Marsh, who the team picked up as a waiver wire player last season after being cut by the New England Patriots. Marsh played six games for the 49ers last year totaling two sacks and two forced fumbles in limited play. The team was so impressed with Marsh they awarded him with a two-year, $7.7 million contract this offseason, with , “You’ve got to be pretty good to beat out Marsh.” The training camp battle between Marsh and Attaochu will be fun to watch, they both exhibit the needed speed off the edge that the defense needs.

 

Overall the defensive line outside of Buckner was average at best last year. The defense pressured opposing quarterbacks 34.8% of the time, and a large reason for that was the pass rush was mediocre. But having Armstead back, and he and Thomas both playing positions they’re better suited for, should help. Add to the mix Marsh with some confidence and a defensive coordinator that believes in him, and Jeremiah Attaochu getting out from the shadows of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, there could be a marked improvement along the defensive front.

 

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