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Ronald Blair makes his move

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The 49ers defensive lineman has beaten the odds dating back to college. He has a big chance now.

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams
Ronald Blair III introduces himself to Jared Goff
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one thing Ronald Blair is good at — besides football — it’s beating the odds. He was a 6’2”, 240-pound lineman (who ran track) at a 500-student high school, and an unknown even at Appalachian State (one of the few schools to recruit him).

Once he got to college, he beat out two larger upperclassmen to start in his true freshman year and had a productive career, ending up as Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the year. However, he had only put on 44 pounds by the time he went to the Combine - and dropped eight of them by his pro day, a month later. The skinny HS lineman was a much skinnier NFL prospect.

Not surprisingly, the 6’2, 276 pound defensive end from a small school with bad 3-cone and 40-yard dash times was not drafted highly. The 49ers took him in the 5th round, which was still above his NFL.com projection of the sixth to seventh round.

Still, there were reasons for the 49ers’ leap of faith. He has long arms (34”) and big hands (10 1/4”, which is 14% larger than Jared Goff’s mitts), and the second most bench press reps (32) of any defensive lineman at the 2016 combine.

PFF noted some other promising numbers: he had the fourth best pass rush productivity and the most defensive stops of any edge or defensive lineman in the class, plus “just two penalties in more than 1,200 combined snaps over [his] last two seasons.”

And while he faced weaker competition in college, Blair did well against Clemson, which narrowly lost the National Championship Game to Alabama that year, 45-40.

Nonetheless, he still just a day three draft pick on a bad team with a new coaching staff, and he was playing the only position — defensive line — where San Francisco had reasonable talent. Blair moved all around the line and impressed in training camp, but didn’t see the field much until week 9 when injuries started to pile up. He finished the season with 311 snaps (27%), 3.0 sacks and 16 tackles.

Even in a 3-4 scheme that arguably didn’t suit him at the pro level, though, Blair made some key plays last year. He got a pressure on his first NFL snap in week one, and in week 16 he sacked Jared Goff on third and five, leading to a punt and the winning drive — contributing to San Francisco’s only two wins.

Against Miami, his sack forced the Dolphins to punt on a drive that started at the Niners’ 24 yard line, saving what looked like a certain field goal at least. As James Brady wrote:

Eli Harold gets some credit on this sack and it was good that he was able to beat the left tackle, but honestly, this play is all Ronald Blair. He shoves the right guard away and barrels at Tannehill with the guard hanging from him. He collides with Tannehill and has him down as Harold also gets a hand on him. It may have been a successful block for the left tackle if Blair wasn’t creating havoc on the other side.

He kept getting better throughout his rookie season. Blair had two QB hits and two pressures in week 17.

This year, a thumb injury kept him off the field until the Arizona game (which is disturbing, since he missed most of his sophomore season in college with another thumb injury that required surgery.) Blair played just 39 snaps in his first game back, garnering 3 tackles. General Manager John Lynch described it this way:

“The first week back he was a little rusty. He looked great in practice and I was expecting great things and then it kinda was like, oh.”

But Blair really came alive against the New York Giants, recording 2.0 sacks, 4 tackles and a forced fumble. Lynch again:

“But the second week I think his legs came underneath. He started using his hands and he really showed up last week. It kind of validates the trust we had in him.”

Blair has been described as a tweener, but the GM has been struck by Blair’s range.

“We like his skill set. He’s a versatile player meaning he can really play three positions for us. He can play the big end, he can play the LEO and he can play the three technique in a limited pass rush role. Shoot last week I saw him in a goal line play lined up at the nose. I don't know how that happened but I thought he played well last week.”

Here are some examples of his play, thanks to Oscar Aparicio of the Better Rivals Podcast. First, an extreme test: DC Robert Saleh drops him into pass coverage, and he breaks up a screen pass.

That’s great, but if Blair makes it in the NFL, it will be through plays like this strip sack:

And how often do you see an NFL tackle beaten by a head fake?

He’s still small for his position, and relatively slow, but Blair has tremendous intelligence, drive, and heart. He has beaten the odds at every level of football so far, and there’s a good chance that he’ll keep doing that for the 49ers, whether he plays defensive end or moves inside.