Each year, we run a series of post called "90-in-90" here at Niners Nation. The idea is that we'll take a look at every single player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few different ways. This is to help give everyone a basic understanding of a roster. Of course, this roster will change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not strictly one per day but you get the idea.
The 49ers were terrible against the run last year, in large part due to season-ending injuries to all 3 starters in the middle of the defensive front: nose tackle Ian Williams and middle linebackers Navorro Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong .
While the defensive line is the Niners’ deepest position group, nose tackle (which still exists in Saleh’s version of the Seattle 4-3 front) is kind of the exception to that rule. DL coach Jeff Zgonina will have a good kind of problem finding snaps for all of his talented DEs and DTs, but the team released both returning NTs (Glenn Dorsey and Mike Purcell) after last year’s horrific run plugging.
Defensive tackles Quinton Dial and Chris Jones are the only returning vets who can play the position. Jones, a late season addition last year, has impressed with his hustle despite what everyone acknowledges is limited talent. He was the only returning free agent the team re-signed. So GM John Lynch signed veteran free agent NT Earl Mitchell to a 4-year, $16 million contract.
Mitchell has had an up and down career, especially if you take PFF’s ratings at face value. They listed him as their top-rated DT in 2014, then said that “in 2015, Mitchell struggled mightily, finishing 97th among interior defensive linemen with a 64.1 overall grade. He was especially weak against the run...”
That drop-off is due in part to injury. He has missed 11 games in the last two seasons, playing just 501 and 306 snaps respectively.
Age: 29 (turns 30 on September 25, 2017)
Experience: 7 accrued seasons
Weight: 300 lbs
2017 Base salary: $1,650,000 (guaranteed)
Signing bonus: $3 million
Bonuses: Roster ($750,000), Workout ($100,000)
2017 cap charge: $2,921,875
What to expect in 2017
GM Lynch praised Mitchell’s character when he signed him:
"As soon as Earl hit the open market, he became a priority for us to sign. A man of high character, he represents everything we want to be as a football team. Earl is a tone-setter who plays the game with a tremendous passion and the effort necessary to win in this league.”
He didn’t say anything about Mitchell’s ability to stop the run, though. By the end of training camp, we’ll have a better idea of whether he has healed enough to be the solid tackle he once was, or is on the downside of a decent career. Drafting nose tackle D.J. Jones in the 6th round might indicate that Lynch isn’t 100% committed to Mitchell going forward, or it might just be a smart, low-cost flyer given that Mitchell will be 30 by the end of week 3.
The Niners won’t need him to make sacks with DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and Elvis Dumervil on the line, but if Mitchell can’t stop inside runs in the base package, Zgonina will have to great creative, rotating between Quinton Dial, Chris Jones and D.J. Jones.
Odds of making the roster
Unless he gets reinjured or just can’t play any more, Mitchell will be the starting nose tackle for this team. The only way he doesn’t make the roster is if he’s released with an injury waiver.
UPDATE: jhc33 makes a good point in the comments, that the 2014 stat from PFF (above) was only after two games, so let’s dig a little deeper. Instead of looking back that far, let’s examine last year in more detail.
After a rough 2015, Mitchell missed all of training camp and didn’t get through game 1 of 2016 before a calf injury sent him to the IR list. They brought him back for game 9 against the Chargers, and he made an immediate impact with 4 solo tackles — all on Melvin Gordon runs, including a 6 yard stuff in a goal line stand. He lost weight and stayed in shape during his time off. San Diego went right at him, not surprisingly, and Mitchell delivered, as the team held Gordon to 70 yards on 24 carries.
Mitchell was up and down the rest of the way, due in part to a separate injury to his back, but he outplayed second year tackled Jordan Phillips to take away the majority of snaps (the two split nose tackle duties). The local beat writers gave him good marks for his games against San Diego, Baltimore (“eye-opening speed”), and Buffalo, and even PFF liked his game against the Cardinals. He also had 3 tackles in the playoff game against Pittsburgh.
So how will he do going forward? Everyone raves about his effort and attitude, and some of the trouble might be due to Miami’s front line injury woes on a team that still made the playoffs. On the other hand, PFF’s Eric Eager wrote a year ago that “Mitchell has never finished higher than 30th in overall grading among defensive tackles during any point in his career,” though he rose modestly to 78th among interior DL in 2016 (compared to 97th in 2015).
So there is plenty of data to support a good or bad evaluation of Mitchell. Miami sportswriters liked his play generally after he came back from injury; his release was a price/performance issue related to their large payroll as much as hating on his play. SF had tons of cap room and a shortage of NT talent, so the exact same package might make sense here.
On the other hand, if you accept PFF’s rankings, he is much better on passing downs than in base, which is a problem because San Francisco acquired him specifically to shore up their run defense. And he’ll soon be 30 any way you slice it.
If you’re an optimist, you can think that the Niners’ medical team projects him to recover fully, and that his great attitude and years of experience make him the perfect mentor for rookie D.J. Jones. If not, well, hopefully Rueben Foster will destroy runners when they get to the second level.