The San Francisco 49ers had a busy free agency period this year, but they got things going before the new league year opened. One of the three signings before free agency opened was defensive tackle Earl Mitchell. The Miami Dolphins released Mitchell as they looked to get younger and clear some cap space, and the 49ers were quick to pounce on him as they continued building the defensive line.
Mitchell did not have the greatest numbers in Miami, and as more of a run-stuffing defensive tackle, it is not surprising he flew under the radar. The 49ers signed him to compete for defensive tackle work in their new 4-3 base defense, next to DeForest Buckner. Quinton Dial and D.J. Jones are two of his primary competitors, but for the time being, Mitchell seems to be impressing. He’s been regularly winning one-on-one battles, and has been a disruptive presence through the first four days of training camp.
Much like some of the offensive players who have previously played in Kyle Shanahan’s system, Mitchell seems to be benefiting from his previous work with 49ers defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina. They worked together in Houston, and Mitchell said on Monday that he thinks Zgonina helped him take a big step forward.
“My last year in Houston, I was able to focus on playing the shade, playing the interior. And I think having the help of Coach Zgonina there, and he’s played the position for 17 years, he really helped me understand blocking schemes, and just he really elevated my game playing in this scheme. So, moving forward, fast forward coming to here, it’s kind of like we’re basically able to continue what we worked on in the past. I’m back to learning and perfecting the craft that he’s developed over the years that he had as a player and now as a coach.”
Mitchell is a presence on the line, but he also brings some leadership and experience to the locker room. He talked about being able to work with other defensive linemen, and also being able to offer insight to the interior offensive linemen.
Quinton Dial is behind Mitchell on the depth chart, but Mitchell acknowledged that Dial has things he can teach Mitchell about playing the line.
“The interesting thing is I think he’s teaching me things. He has quick hands, and he’s very hard to move. There’s gonna come times where you need a guy like his style, his presence, especially in our run game. He’s actually teaching me things, which is the crazy thing ... He has great hand placement. He’s very strong, and he’s pretty instinctive, and very smart. Pays attention to the offensive, just the way they line up. He sees things the way I see it. Sometimes he plays it a little differently, and it will be a way I think I should incorporate to my game.”
Dial is not the same body type, and has plenty to learn about the new defense. However, Mitchell thinks that with reps, he can be an impact player in this defense. “I think he’ll definitely be able to adjust, he just needs more time. The more reps we get and the way Coach Zgonina has us getting reps I think has been working out well.”