With the latest post up on Parys Haralson, we've got our grades back on schedule. Today, we'll continue our alphabetical run with a very significant player, who is a backup at multiple positions: Ricky Jean Francois. Drafted in the seventh round a couple years ago, many of us were actually pretty happy with him on draft day ... something of an anomaly with seventh-round picks. Either way, Jean Francois was quickly recognized as someone with a lot of potential.
He came in as a defensive end, but quickly showed that he can play nose tackle, and was hoping to challenge for some time at the position. Instead, the 49ers switched over Isaac Sopoaga and gave Ray McDonald a vote of confidence as the starter, but kept RJF as the primary backup at all positions on the line, and it turned out to be a great choice. Let's take a look at why after the jump.
It was a great choice because both McDonald and Sopoaga missed time, and RJF filled in very well. The best thing about RJF's style of play is that he adapts to each position. It's not as though you have a defensive end lining up at nose tackle when he's filling in for Sopoaga, he's playing like a nose tackle. He eats up space and tries to power through double teams, with the added benefit of being able to rush the passer like a defensive end.
I'd say he's just about starting caliber at nose tackle, to be perfectly honest. Sopoaga was better last season, but he's looked like a totally new player the past couple seasons. He's not quite good enough at rushing the passer to be a starting left defensive end, but he does wrap up players well and is great with stopping the run.
One thing that's impressed me the most about Jean Francois is his awareness. For a guy out of the seventh round, he's so versatile and so aware of what's going on around him. He's got that Justin Smith quality where he reached around blockers to make a tackle and he's always aware when a pass is going to be flying over his head - he knocked down two of them this past season.
He fills in for Sopoaga more than he does McDonald, but you can expect him to take snaps all across the line next season. He's just a very solid, consistent player that doesn't sacrifice skill for versatility. The 49ers need to be on notice with him in the future - another team could try and sign him away once he hits free agency. He's signed through next season.