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How the defensive tackle group holds the defense together

Entering another year with an unproven pass-rush, the defensive tackle group must step up again.

Buffalo Bills v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Quality defensive line play is essential to any defense. Last season, the defensive tackle group stepped up when both Nick Bosa and Dee Ford were injured. But, unfortunately, defensive tackles usually don't get the love they deserve.

Interior defensive line play helped San Francisco 49ers' defense finish eighth in rushing EPA per play and tied for third in total rushing touchdowns allowed with 12. And going into 2021, with an uncertain pass rush, the defensive tackle group will have to step up again.

Defensive tackle depth is the best thing going for the defensive line. These men make the linebacker core look good anyway. In addition, most of the group is interchangeable from the 1,3, and 5-technique positions — which is great for rotation as no one is truly limited anywhere.

D.J. Jones

I'm sure John Lynch feared he would lose D.J. Jones, who has shown he can defend the run and show pass rush ability over the last two seasons. But Jones’ ankle injuries the previous two seasons likely halted those contract negotiations with other teams.

Jones has been a key piece to San Francisco's defensive line the last two seasons. However, I believe Kevin Givens can outmatch his production if the opportunity is granted. In contrast, if Jones wants to secure that big-money contract, he will have to get around six-plus sacks this year.

Jones’ ability to absorb double team blocks is essential to San Franciso’s run defense. On the other hand, his pass-rush ability must continue to improve. The Niners are likely to move on after the season if he cant stay healthy or keep up the production.

To emphasize his impact in the run game, you can see him fight across the center’s face disrupting the play below.

Kevin Givens

Givens showed high upside throughout 2020 and looked to be Jones’ replacement after the season. Below, Givens takes on the Center and guard with each hand forcing the cut back along with Dre Greenlaw.

Givens can stuff the run just like Jones and has a higher ceiling rushing the passer. Does Givens have a chance to unseat Jones as a starter? The answer is likely no right now. Although if Givens displays he is a better pass rusher in camp, he should get the reps.

Grant Cohn of Sports Illustrated was first on calling Givens baby Aaron Donald. His explosiveness off the line can wreak havoc, as seen below. Givens is listed as Green in the 49ers' defensive color-coded rankings, reiterating that he is still a raw player with a high ceiling.

Javon Kinlaw

Kinlaw was drafted to replace All-Pro Deforest Buckner. Going into his rookie season with virtual fieldwork, Kinlaw's development forcefully grew throughout the season. Instead of constantly comparing Kinlaw to Buckner, we should let him become his own player.

I don’t think it would be a shock at all to see Kinlaw as one of the best defenders on the team throughout the 2021 season. In the hope that he can dial into his pass rush plan, Kinlaw could easily be the most improved player on the team.

What I liked when watching Kinlaw is when his pass rush plan wouldn't fall through, he found other ways to affect the QB. Kinlaw flashed with pass deflections (4) tied with four other defensive backs for fourth on the team last year.

Zach Kerr is an intriguing addition. He had 13 QB pressures which would've ranked fourth on the 49ers last year. He could also compete for Jones’ starting spot explicitly hence him coming off a career year.

Kentavious Street has to put up or shut up this season. Last year's best play of the season was a sack on Drew Brees that was negated by a penalty. It was indeed a lousy penalty, but it was one of the very few high points he had in 2020.

Maurice Hurst Jr. feels like a camp competition signing. The once highly touted Hurst has had an inconsistent NFL career. Hurst would have to prove to coaches that he could defend the run along with actual pass-rush success.

2021 Outlook

The defensive tackle group played well last season, but they can not look back. Every player on this roster should be focused on now. There is no superior player in the defensive tackle group. Instead, the rotation is stronger than ever, leaving room for changes if someone steps up.

Darrion Daniels will likely be a practice squad player that could see his name called. But Daniels, Hurst, and Street all face the opportunity of being cut. If Samson Ebukam can prove he can defend the run and the pass, will the 49ers move Arik Armstead to DT permanently? Who knows. After all, this is truly the strongest position group on the team.