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Ronald Blair is the 49ers' day-three pick most likely to make an early impact

Finding contributors on day three of the NFL draft isn't easy, but the 49ers might have one in Appalachian State's Ronald Blair.

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It’s not easy to find value in the late rounds of the NFL draft. Every draft season, much virtual ink is spilled on how tough it is to separate the first-round successes and busts. Needless to say, once you reach day three and the talent pool has thinned considerably, that task grows significantly more difficult.

So as we start to look at what the 49ers’ day-three selections bring to the table, it’s important to keep that in mind. Most, if not all, of these players will fail to make an impact. That’s just the reality.

That said, if I had to hitch my wagon to one 49ers’ draftee selected in the fourth round or later to become an exception to the rule, that player would be Ronald Blair, the small-school, undersized defensive lineman chosen with the 142nd overall pick.

On a macro level, fifth-round defensive linemen have offered an incredible return in value relative to their draft position. Since the league went to its current 32-team format, a number of quality players have been unearthed in the fifth round; Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, Kyle Williams, Malik Jackson, and Pernell McPhee among them. Even some of San Francisco’s best draft picks in recent seasons—and there haven’t been many—have been defensive linemen selected in the fifth, Quinton Dial and Aaron Lynch (yes, Lynch was converted to outside linebacker, but we’re including both interior defensive linemen and edge players here).

Zooming in on the micro, there’s a lot to like about Blair’s game. He was incredibly productive while at Appalachian State—Blair finished first in run stop percentage and 11th in pass rush productivity at his position, per Pro Football Focus—and looked like the best player on the field against the lower-tier teams he primarily faced. In rare chances to battle it out versus Power–5 teams, Blair looked like he belonged. So let’s turn to the tape and take a look at how he might fit in on a now-crowded depth chart at defensive line.

Where he wins

Quickness is the name of the game for Blair. Though his performance at the combine was a bit lackluster, particularly when it came to the speed and agility drills, Blair put together a much better outing at his pro day and profiles as an excellent athlete for his position. Blair’s pSPARQ score put him in the 88th percentile among NFL interior defensive linemen, not far off Robert Nkemdiche’s score and ahead of Sheldon Rankins and Chris Jones, all of whom were selected within the draft’s top 40 picks.

Blair is quick off the snap and at his best when allowed to shoot gaps and be a disruptive presence in the backfield, as he does on this play versus Clemson:

Here, you get an example of how Blair combines his quickness and athleticism with good hand usage to free himself from blockers. Lining up as a nose tackle, Blair knocks down the center’s hands before sliding through the line of scrimmage with a swim move, his preferred method of getting around blockers, to record the third-down stop in the backfield.

In addition to helping him beat linemen in one-on-one situations, Blair also tends to use his quickness to defeat double-teams. At times, you would see Blair rely more on his strength to occupy multiple blockers in the run game, freeing up teammates to make plays. More often than not, however, Blair opted to get skinny and try to split double-teams whenever the opportunity arose.

On this play from the Troy game, Blair is facing a center-guard double-team on a zone run right at him. Before the center can even engage, Blair swims by the guard to open up a crease, which he works his way through to help bring down the ballcarrier. Regardless of whether he was defeating double-teams or single linemen, when Blair was making plays in the run game it often came as a result of this sort of quickness and hand usage.

When rushing the passer, just as in the run game, Blair prefers to attack the shoulder of the lineman to slip by them rather than going straight through them with a bull rush. According to Pro Football Focus, Blair pressured the quarterback with outside pressure (meaning the outside of the lineman, not necessarily off the edge) once every 14.7 snaps, with inside pressure once every 22.6 snaps, but only once every 294 snaps with the bull rush. Again, all about quickness and hand usage.

These same traits made Blair an asset on twists and stunts as well. While he might not have great top end speed, he showed off the burst to close and finish plays with a sack once he had a path to the quarterback.

Blair’s athleticism shows up all over his game, not just when he’s penetrating into the backfield; chasing down ballcarriers from the back side of runs, getting outside and making tackles in the screen game, and even making plays like this:

Where he struggles

Blair’s aggressiveness in shooting gaps and trying to be a disruptive presence in the backfield can also work against him at times. There are snaps when he takes himself out of the play by getting too far upfield. On other snaps, if the offensive lineman can prevent him from squeezing through the gap, Blair can get moved off the spot fairly easily with down blocks. Whereas he should be pressing the hole to limit the space the ballcarrier has to run through, his momentum gets used against him and big running lanes can result.

As I touched on in the previous section, Blair rarely goes to the bullrush and doesn’t look terribly effective when he does. Despite possessing more than adequate strength—Blair put up an impressive 32 reps on the bench press at the combine, which tied for the second-best figure among defensive linemen, and did have plays where you could see that translate to the field—you just didn’t really get to see him use it all that often.

In a similar vein, despite possessing above average athleticism for his position, you’re not going to see him bending around NFL offensive tackles to get to the quarterback with pure speed. He’s a good athlete, just not that kind of athlete.

Most of the concerns with Blair’s game, however, have less to do with what he did on the field—again, most of the time he looked like the best player on the field versus FCS lower-level FBS competition. The question is whether that will translate to the higher level of competition he will face in the NFL. It’s only one game, but his performance against Clemson makes me optimistic about his chances.

The bottom line

While at Appalachian State, Blair primarily played as a defensive end on a three-man line, but as you can see from some of the clips above, they moved him all over the place. Where he ultimately fits, and whether that ends up being the right fit, will go a long way toward determining what type of player he will become.

Some have suggested he’s an edge player in the NFL because he’s undersized for the interior, but I think that would be a misuse of his skill-set. My guess is that we won’t see him too frequently in San Francisco’s "base" 3-4 defense (I think he will eventually land at defensive end if he plays there), but instead we will see him as a rotational interior pass rusher in sub-packages.

Blair could easily end up in obscurity if he’s not used properly, just as Tank Carradine did before him. If this coaching staff can put him in positions that play to his strengths, however, he could be a valuable chess piece in sub-packages during his rookie season. And for that reason, I think he’ll have the greatest impact of any of the 49ers’ Day 3 selections.