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Why DL Ronald Blair III could be the 49ers’ second-best defensive lineman

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Let’s analyze one of the 49ers’ most underrated young defenders.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

One of the deepest position groups on the 49ers continues to be their defensive line, headed by third-year superstar lineman DeForest Buckner. With no established pass rusher, the coaching staff turns to a strong rotation of linemen, who are both stout in the run game and can be effective in rushing the passer.

While linemen Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead receive more attention due to their first-round draft status, Ronald Blair III has shown flashes of why he could be the 49ers’ most effective defensive lineman (sans Buckner).

The former 5th-round pick played in six games during his sophomore season, even starting two games. Blair III’s best performance last season came against the Giants’ weak starting offensive line, racking up three tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.

In the preseason finale, Blair III was fighting for a roster spot, earning the start against the Los Angeles Chargers. LA’s quarterback, Geno Smith, felt the ex-Appalachian State defender’s presence early in the ball game, as he was sacked on the first play of the game. While Blair III does not have the size nor athleticism that Buckner, Armstead and Thomas possess, he can be just as (if not more) effective on the field.

After playing in 23 snaps on Thursday, Blair III was able to prove to the 49ers’ brain trust that he’s deserving of a roster spot. The third-year defender had three tackles, one quarterback hit and one sack after playing in nearly half of the team’s defensive snaps. Taking a look at those plays below, let’s take a look at why Blair III’s performance could help establish his presence as one of the best defensive linemen on this roster.

On the very first play of the game, Blair III shows his high motor, as he chases Smith down from behind for the sack. A lot of defensive lineman would give up on this play once they get caught further up field, but Blair III runs back and doesn’t quit.

Later in the first quarter, Blair III is able to shed the Chargers’ blocker quickly and rush the quarterback. While he’s just a tad late for his second sack in the game, he’s able to lay a clean hit on the Chargers’ signal caller.

In this clip below, Blair III lines up at the top of the screen and tries to avoid the blocker, chasing after the Chargers’ running back, despite the offensive lineman hanging onto the ex-5th-round pick.

Blair III continues to have a nose for the ball, as he comes un-touched in this play, allowing him to chase the runner down and contribute to the tackle. He’s able to get to the ball quickly and take the Chargers’ tailback down immediately for only a 1-yard gain.

While his athleticism may be just behind the level of some of the more popular 49ers’ linemen, this play shows what he’s capable of. The Chargers run the ball on an end around with one of their wide receivers and Blair III is able to get outside and hunt him down for a tackle. While it turns out to be a 4-yard gain, Blair III prevented it from being a much bigger gain.

Last, Blair III shows off his relentless effort on this play, running 15 yards down field to complete the tackle. Most interior run defenders give up once the opposing tailback breaks into the defense’s second level, but Blair III was the 49ers’ defender that showed the most energy here.

The 49ers may have a diamond in the rough with their 5th-round pick from 2016. Blair III may have earned his roster spot in the preseason finale, but it’s going to take solid performances early in the regular season to earn consistent playing time. If Blair III is able to put the pieces together and play like he did against Los Angeles, he can be the second-most productive lineman on this defense.