The San Francisco 49ers introduced a new regime last February, and they did not wait for the new league year to get busy making roster moves. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan dove right in, signing several players prior to the new league year. After signing cornerback K’Waun Williams and wide receiver DeAndre Carter, they signed defensive tackle Earl Mitchell to a four-year deal.
Mitchell entered the NFL as a third round pick of the Houston Texans. After four seasons in Houston, he signed with the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent. The Dolphins released him prior to the start of 2017 free agency, and he quickly drew interest. The 49ers eventually signed him to a four-year deal worth up to $16 million, reuniting him with his assistant DL coach in Houston, Jeff Zgonina.
Mitchell got playing time in both base and sub packages, finishing third behind DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas for defensive line snaps. Mitchell brought solid veteran leadership, and the 49ers were comfortable enough releasing Quinton Dial. However, Mitchell’s numbers were not spectacular, finishing 44th out of 55 qualifying defensive linemen in run stop percentage.
Age: 30 (31 on September 25th)
Experience: 8 accrued seasons
Weight: 310 lbs
Entering second season of four-year contract. He is due $2,250,000 this season, and $1,850,000 of that is guaranteed as of April 1st. He is due a $750,000 roster bonus and $100,000 workout bonus. He has a cap hit of $3.85 million. If the 49ers release him, they would carry $2.6 million in dead money, and save $1.25 million in cap space.
Why he might improve in 2018
He has a full year in the offensive system, and really, most of the defensive line has a full year in the system. The 49ers have invested quite a bit in boosting the defensive line. Mitchell’s best chance for improvement could very well come courtesy of having more consistent play on the edges. In the base, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas will line up outside. If they can provide some semblance of consistency (and stay healthy), that could help both Mitchell and Buckner on the inside.
Why he might regress in 2018
He turns 31 in September. Players can keep going into their 30s, but age is undefeated. The team has a lot of interior depth which further diminishes his opportunities in the sub-packages, and could result in more rotation even in the base defense. Either way, I would not be surprised to see his workload decrease this year.
Odds of making the roster
The 49ers have enough cap space if they decide to release him, but given his April 1st guarantee and the lack of significant offseason additions beyond Jullian Taylor, he’s got a good shot at sticking around. I listed him as strong bubble prior to OTAs. If D.J. Jones, Sheldon Day, and maybe Taylor step up, maybe it gets interesting — but as is, I think he’s got one more year with the 49ers. After that? I would be surprised if he lasted into the third year of his deal.