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Film breakdown: Should the 49ers re-sign Tank Carradine?

Carradine finally had some kind of “break out” season but with a bevy of younger players at the DE spot, will the 49ers bring him back?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Tank Carradine has some similarities in his situation to the first man I wrote about in this mini-series on pending free agents, Eric Reid. Much like Reid, Carradine hasn’t matched expectations here in the Bay, and finds himself with an expiring contract courtesy of those generally underwhelming performances and at least one talented alternative beneath him.

This suggests starter money is out of the question. However, also much like Reid, Carradine does excel in a particular area of football, and might well be worth re-signing in order to be utilized in his demonstrated area of strength. Whilst Reid has his uses as a close to the LOS, in-the-box defender, limited to short to intermediate zone coverage, blitzing and run defense, Carradine is an extremely effective run-stopping defensive end. Given this scheme has a role for such a player, is it worth bringing Tank back for another crack in the Bay?

What does he do well?

As a run stopping defensive end, Carradine was primarily used as a strong-side end for the 49ers in base packages. Once Arik Armstead got hurt, he also appeared in nickel packages on certain occasions in the same role. Whilst it is worth noting that Carradine’s overall career has likely not benefited from his moving around the defensive line, Carradine certainly benefited from his past experiences this season. As a defensive end in a 3-4 (and thus often lining up as an interior defender) Carradine developed a powerful pair of hands and upper body, in addition to a stoutness against the run. Lining up as an OLB for one season under Chip Kelly gave him greater experience working against tight ends and trey blocks with tight ends and tackles. Combining these lessons led to Carradine breaking out as a run stopping 4-3 end this season, where he earned the 24th highest run stopping grade amongst all defensive ends of 82.6 per PFF. He abused tight ends, but more importantly for his future prospects, showed the ability to be dominant against offensive linemen as well.

Carradine absolutely destroys tight end Greg Olsen here. Despite Olsen starting with the outside leverage he wanted, Carradine rocks him on first contact with a powerful two handed punch and takes complete control. Showing excellent hand usage and lateral movement, Carradine ensures the 49ers are not punished for Eli Harold failing to set the edge as he does so himself, forcing Jonathan Stewart back inside for a minimal gain. Carradine didn’t get any credit on the stats sheet for this play, but he made it.

Olsen would have been glad to see the back of Carradine after this game. Carradine single handedly blows this play up, as he smashes Olsen back on first contact and walks him back into the running back’s desire lane. This forces a cutback and an eventual tackle for a loss.

Low man wins in the trenches. Here, Carradine is having to content with All-Pro guard Andre Norwell because of the Carolina Panthers’ using a tackle over front. Carradine does well to maintain his outside leverage off the snap, staying low and shrugs off the double team. He once again flashes excellent hand usage and strength to shake Norwell and get in on the tackle.

Once again, Carradine destroys the tight end. In theory, the Seattle Seahawks were hoping to double team Carradine, but his power right off the snap ensures the first blocker ends up a yard or two back and the second blocker can’t be of any use. Using his far greater strength, Carradine gets inside leverage, holds off the tight end with one arm and makes the tackle for no gain.

Carradine does a good job here against the Seahawk’s tackle. He controls him, pushing him slightly backwards and making sure the back cannot cut back inside the tackle. Once the back gets outside him, he sheds the blocker and joins the pursuit. His and Eli Harold’s work, preventing the cut back and doing a decent job setting the edge forces a big TFL.

Carradine bullies the tackle here, once again winning with a punch right off the snap and then shedding to make the tackle on Leonard Fournette. This snap is particularly important as it shows Carradine’s ability to win in nickel against tackles.

Carradine’s experience as a 3-4 end also came in use when Robert Saleh utilized base 3-4 fronts to deal with heavy sets, such as the 22 personnel and 13 personnel groupings employed by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Carradine’s ability to line up between the tackles as a 4i-tech makes him a more versatile piece than simply a base 4-3 run stopping end. This trait makes him more attractive given the greater versatility it provides his defensive co-ordinator.

Another important trait to have for Carradine is the ability to win as a pass rusher, particularly converting from being a run defender to a pass rusher against play action and RPOs. Once again, Carradine’s strength comes into play and enables him to perform this role at an acceptable but not great level. He normally struggles as a pure pass rusher however, though on occasion flashed the same moves he showed when converting run defending to pass rushing to apply pressure or get sacks.

Carradine understands that he as to get upfield to set the edge if it’s a running play and does so off snap. Seeing the play action though, Carradine has the strength to beat Jack Conklin, once again flashing active hands coupled with his power to free himself from the tackle and get the half sack.

Once again, Carradine shows the strength to turn from a run defender into a pass rusher on the same play. As the back side defender has to be wary of the possible read-option and in this instance, the cutback from the back on the RPO, but once Cam Newton keeps the ball, he’s able to easily shed the tackle and apply some pressure to Newton.

Where does he struggle?

Primarily as a pure pass rusher. There is a reason that Carradine went off the field in obvious passing situations, as he lacks the ability to get upfield off the snap, and contrastingly to his play as a run defender, looks labored in his movements. Occasionally he flashes his power and perhaps has some potential still as an interior rusher, but Carradine is fundamentally a run down player only. That could be the main issue for him getting re-signed.

Additionally, Carradine may fall victim to Robert Saleh’s shift towards right and left defensive ends in base packages. Whilst he normally did have a strong side end in nickel, this role is unlikely for Carradine due to his lack of pass rush ability. In base, Saleh preferred to have run stoppers at each end position and whilst you would think having two run stoppers on the field instead of one might help Carradine, it may also hinder him. Rather than being able to specialize as a strong side defender, Carradine would need the mobility to be able to deal with roll outs and possible read option. This is another area of weakness for him and this move from Saleh could see his one niche disappear.

Should the 49ers re-sign Carradine?

The answer here is probably not, unless they can sign him on the cheap which is admittedly a possibility given his injury history and lack of good performances over an extended period of time. There are a few factors at play here, however.

Firstly, Carradine has more value if he’s in a scheme that uses a true strong side end in base packages. If the 49ers want to utilize such a player then that perhaps makes Carradine a more likely re-sign. But if they primarily plan on using a left and right end in base with both as good run stoppers but with greater mobility (Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, and Ronald Blair are all more mobile) then Carradine has less value in Santa Clara compared to a team who want a base strong side end.

Conversely, if Robert Saleh wants to continue utilizing some hybrid defensive fronts, mixing up 4-3 and 3-4 looks, then Carradine might have more value to the 49ers, due to his experience between the tackles. However, Blair, Armstead, Thomas and DeForest Buckner all have experience between the tackles in their careers.

Clearly, the primary issue for Carradine is the presence of Thomas, Armstead, Blair, and to a lesser extent Buckner. They can all play the same position as Carradine in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, are younger and more athletic than he is and all offer greater pass rush ability and/or upside in that area. A fully healthy Armstead and Blair, coupled with a sophomore year Thomas could force Carradine way down the pecking order, making his re-signing incredibly unlikely. His excellent run stopping performances should ensure he gets a job somewhere, but could also persuade the 49ers to bring him back on the cheap to maintain the strength of their defensive line rotation against the run. The Philadelphia Eagles showed the benefit of freshness on the defensive line this past season.