The San Francisco 49ers had ten defensive linemen (DTs, DEs, and LEOs) rostered on Week 1 of the 2017 season. Two were listed on the Injured Reserve list, with Ronald Blair marked to return. By the end of the season, 16 different linemen had seen game time - including a paltry 28 special teams only snaps for LEO Pita Taumoepenu. Weeks fifteen and sixteen each showed eleven defensive linemen on the roster, plus Pita T. who was listed with the SAM linebackers.
Of those sixteen who saw snaps, seven are no longer under contract with the team. Add four rookies and the free agent signing, Jeremiah Attaochu, and the team currently has fourteen defensive linemen on the 90-man offseason roster, ostensibly fighting for ten spots. Subtracting rookie Kentavius Street from the roster calculus due to the virtual certainty of an injury red-shirt season, it would seem that there are only thirteen players aiming for ten spots.
Note: 49ers.com/ESPN/Wikipedia all list Pita T. as a linebacker (PFR lists him as a DE), but I’m sticking with the assumption that he’ll be trying out for the LEO position.
The 2017 snap counts reflected the offseason rhetoric espoused by DL coach Jeff Zgonina - rotation, rotation, rotation. DeForest Buckner led the percentage of overall snaps with 863 (just shy of 77%), and only two other linemen (Earl Mitchell, Solomon Thomas) played over 50% of the overall snaps. However, even the purely rotational guys nearly all reached about 20%, meaning even the bottom of the DL depth chart saw roughly 15 snaps per game. Beyond the absolute locks for the roster, it seems like the competition should be pretty fierce along the bubble, as everyone will be expected to produce.
With that being said, who will the odd men out be? First things first, Kentavius Street will be PUP’d; we can cleanly table that matter until 2019. Earl Mitchell, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas are absolute locks. 3 spots filled. Cassius Marsh was recently extended and the team picked up Arik Armstead’s fifth-year option. 5 spots filled. Jeremiah Attaochu has nearly half of the potential value of his contract guaranteed; it’s a virtual certainty that he’ll make the team. That’s six.
Sheldon Day was a solid rotational piece, and D.J. Jones should be the first man up to spell Mitchell. Those two aren’t a certainty, but I suppose they’d fall under the “strong bubble” category. The next two spots get quite murky, especially considering Arik Armstead’s lack of a concrete identity in this defense. If they were to consider him, first and foremost, a big end, that may begin to spell trouble for a weak bubble guy like Ronald Blair (a personal favorite, by the way). Should Armstead be cross-trained (or fully converted?) to LEO, Pita T. would become entirely redundant, meaning his best shot as a roster spot would be backing up Eli Harold (and, perhaps, Dekoda Watson) as a SAM backer.
There seems to be some positive buzz around 7th round rookie Jullian Taylor, so perhaps a strong showing in the exhibition games may allow him to claw his way onto the 53, at the expense of either Blair or Taumoepenu. As much as I’ll bag on prognostication, if I absolutely had to, I’d guess that Blair and Pita make the 53 as our last men on, and Taylor gets a nice bonus to stick with the practice squad. The undrafted guys, Niles Scott and Blaine Woodson, seem to have their work cut out for them. I’ve got them as longshots - same as effectively everyone else who has given this a once-over.
Or, you know, Arik Armstead gets traded after a few preseason games and we throw this whole thing out. Your thoughts?
Fun fact: Earl Mitchell is the only defensive lineman on the 49ers who has had a 26th birthday.
Who Is? DT Jullian Taylor | Panacy, Niner Noise
10 most underrated players in Niners history | Panacy, Niner Noise