Ronald Blair III made a fateful choice during his freshman year in high school, according to the 49ers. He ignored his band teacher, who argued he should keep playing tuba instead of going out for football, because he’d never see the field anyway as a freshman. Instead Blair put on a helmet, made varsity and became a starter that year. He went on to become a star at tiny Appalachian State, and a 5th round pick for the Niners.
While the music world mourns the loss of a potential tuba superstar, the 49ers celebrate the development of a young versatile defensive lineman. He only played six games last year due to injury, starting two, but he showed his potential in his second start, against the New York Giants on November 12, notching three solo tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
As I wrote around Thanksgiving time last year, Blair 3 is undersized and not particularly athletic, but he is an smart, hardworking film study wonk and playmaker, even in the NFL (in flashes). The guy has overachieved at every level, constantly defying expectations and surviving a scheme change from an odd (3-4) to even front. By now we should just expect that.
Age: 25 (turns 26 on January 21, 2019)
Experience: 2 accrued seasons
Weight: 284 lbs
In the third year of his rookie contract as a fifth-round pick, Blair will make $630,000, none of it guaranteed. If cut, his dead money will just be this year’s share of his signing bonus ($67K) and the Niners get to keep all $630K.
Why he might regress in 2018
Blair remains small and not particularly athletic. After his big game against a terrible Giants team with crumbling morale, he didn’t dent the box scores much in December, with just one solo tackle, two assists, and no sacks, stuffs or forced fumbles in the final three games.
Another concern is his thumb. Seriously. Last year he didn’t play until game nine against Arizona due to a thumb injury, and he missed most of his sophomore year in college with a thumb injury that required surgery. It could be a coincidence, but ….
Why he might improve in 2018
John Lynch is the man that Blair has to convince, and he has had high praise for the young DL:
“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.”
Blair had about the same production in 2017 as he did his rookie year, but he got those numbers in 6 games instead of 11 due to his injury. This is a team with a strong defensive line that’s somehow short of playmakers, and Blair is a playmaker.
With some stability on the team and a new pass-rushing coach (Chris Kiffin) to mentor him, Blair is in a great position to make some noise.
Odds of making the team
The odds are good (but not overwhelming) that Blair sticks. There are several competitors on the DL, which is arguably San Francisco’s strongest unit, but Blair III has two crucial things going for him: flashes of production, and versatility (which is key for a backup). He plays both inside and out on the defensive line, and for a substitute that flexibility is crucial. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have both talked about how much they value that.
That said, this is a team desperate for more production in the pass rush, and seventh round pick Julian Taylor is in the mix along with Sheldon Day, Jeremiah Attaochu and Cassius Marsh. Kiffin has said that he will emphasize team pass-rushing, as opposed to one-on-one battles, and if Blair doesn’t fit into the new scheme, the Niners won’t shed any tears over cutting him.