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Why the 49ers let DT D.J. Jones walk in free agency

D.J. Jones was a force, but the 49ers have quietly prepared to replace him along their defensive front.

San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle D.J. Jones (93) looks on during the NFC Wild Card game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys on January 16, 2022 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers lost a big name along their defensive line late on the first day of NFL free agency when D.J. Jones inked a three-year, $30 million contract ($20 million guaranteed) with the Denver Broncos.

Jones was a force for the Niners last season, starting every game while posting career highs in tackles (56), tackles for loss (10), quarterback hits (3), and forced fumbles (2).

Jones has been a staple on the 49ers' interior defensive line since the team drafted him in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Taking on a larger and larger role in each subsequent year of his career, Jones put together his most impactful play this season. Yet, the Niners still opted to let him head to Colorado. Why?

The short answer is salary cap space. The 49ers' cap situation is well documented at this point. With limited flexibility, re-signing Jones would have hamstrung their other options and likely would have prevented them from adding cornerback Charvarius Ward. Still, it was more than just money. San Francisco is quietly well-positioned to replace Jones' production.

The team's 2020 first-round pick, Javon Kinlaw, got the bulk of the attention on Monday after Jones signed. The former 14th overall selection will now have a golden opportunity to assert himself next season. However, he's not the only internal option the Niners have waiting in the wings to line up next to Arik Armstead.

Last week, the 49ers quietly extended interior defensive linemen Kevin Givens and Maurice Hurst for one-year, minimum salary contracts. While neither move generated significant attention, it signaled San Francisco was preparing for a world without Jones. Hurst, in particular, stands out as perhaps an even more likely replacement for Jones than Kinlaw.

Hurst was surprisingly cut the last offseason by the Raiders and was quickly scooped up by the 49ers. Heading into last year, Hurst generated plenty of buzz as a Niner's sleeper. Pro Football Focus even named him the most underrated player on their roster.

However, ankle and calf injuries-alongside Jones' play-prevented Hurst from ever gaining a foothold in defensive line coach Kris Kocurek's rotation.

Despite his quiet 2021 season, Hurst is not far removed from being a starting-caliber defensive tackle. Hurst played more than half of the Raiders' defensive snaps from 2018-2019-Jones played 51% of San Francisco's defensive snaps in 2021-before seeing his role diminish in 2020 for reasons that remain unclear.

Hurst recorded 37 tackles, 11 quarterback hits, and 7.5 sacks over those two seasons. In fact, his 2019 campaign has some eerie similarities to Jones' 2021.

D.J. Jones’ 2021 vs. Maurice Hurst’s 2019

 Year Defensive Snaps NT Snaps DT Snaps DE Snaps PFF Grade
 Year Defensive Snaps NT Snaps DT Snaps DE Snaps PFF Grade
Maurice Hurst 2019 522 69 387 66 73.1
D.J. Jones 2021 549 50 436 63 73.2
Data via Pro Football Focus

Givens, a former undrafted free agent out of Penn State, is only 25 and has appeared in 26 games over the past two seasons for the 49ers. He's far less likely than Kinlaw or Hurst to make a significant impact next season but adds solid backup depth.

The 49ers might not be done either. They could use a draft pick to add another big body to the mix and/or peruse the free-agent market for another veteran. Former Pro Bowlers Sheldon Richardson and Ndamokung Suh could easily ink one-year contracts for less than $5 million this offseason. There are several other quality players, like Derrick Nnadi and the recently released Michael Pierce, who will likely settle for small one-year deals as well.

The 49ers have consistently invested in their defensive line under Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, but even that priority has its limits. After all, San Francisco traded arguably the second-best interior defensive lineman in the NFL (DeForest Buckner) because they believed they could maintain an elite defense without him. They did.

D.J. Jones is a good player, but with Armstead's contract likely restructured this offseason and Nick Bosa's record-breaking extension just around the corner, the 49ers already have two defensive linemen earmarked for sizable cap space.

Able to re-sign players like Maurice Hurst and Kevin Givens for the minimum to pair with a recent first-round pick like Javon Kinlaw, the Niners decided to let Jones get the contract he deserved elsewhere. Now the pressure is on Kinlaw, Hurst, and any other veterans the 49ers bring in to deliver.