When the 49ers officially sign Elvis Dumervil to his two-year contract they will have 13 defensive linemen on their 90-man offseason roster. That’s not exorbitant. After all, the 49ers now use a four-man line and they have three different units in practice: first string, second string, third string.
It becomes interesting, however, when you consider what happens when they cut the roster to 53 players in early September. The last two years, the 49ers have kept seven defensive linemen. Maybe this year with defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina’s emphasis on rotating linemen they’ll keep eight. But it still means that, barring major injuries between now and then, the team will part ways with a fairly significant name or two or three.
Here are the 49ers defensive linemen and where they’ve been lining up in spring practices. From left to right it goes, LDE, NT, DT, RDE
Arik Armstead, RDE1. Armstead, who appears slimmer than he was a year ago, has been the first-string Leo pass rusher. That may change with Dumervil’s arrival, although it’s also possible that Armstead will play base downs there with Dumervil coming in on more obvious passing situations. Armstead also is capable of playing the big end and defensive tackle spots on the defensive line.
Ronald Blair, LDE2. Blair, an undersized defensive lineman in college, was a bit of an oddball in last year’s defense and isn’t a great fit anywhere in this one, either. He’s been lining up with the second-team unit at the big-end spot. Where Blair excels, however, is in hustle, and Zgonina made it clear last week that he holds that quality very highly. “I’m a high-energy guy,” he said. “I like guys that run to the ball.” Zgonina was talking about Chris Jones when he said that, but it fits Blair as well.
DeForest Buckner, DT1. Buckner was last year’s MVP on the defensive line and, had the light turned on a little earlier for him, he might have challenged Joey Bosa for defensive rookie-of-the-year honors. He had trouble with double teams last year. this year’s defense minimizes the opportunities for linemen to double team him, and he seems poised for a very strong season.
Tank Carradine, LDE1. For really the first time in his career, Carradine has been working with the first-team unit. He’s always been best-suited as a 4-3 defensive end, the position he played at Florida State, and that’s where the 49ers have him now. How long, however, can he be expected to hold onto his spot? The 49ers used the No. 3 overall draft pick on Solomon Thomas, who lined up at left defensive end in the team’s rookie minicamp. Carradine also seems like he could play the Leo spot. He hasn’t gotten any snaps there yet, however, (at least in any of the open practices) and it seems more unlikely with Carradine in the fold.
Quinton Dial, NT2. Dial received a contract extension recently — early in 2016 — which hasn’t exactly been a badge of honor in the eyes of the new 49ers regime. He’s been playing nose tackle with the second-team unit. At 6-5, he’s tall for a nose tackle and might be better suited at defensive tackle or left defensive end. His roster spot may hinge on how confident the 49ers are in rookie D.J. Jones.
Chris Jones, DT2. It’s difficult to make judgments in OTA practices in which hitting and tackling (which are kinda important in the sport of football) are not allowed. Jones, however, has flashed in the practices that are open to reporters because he is very active, chasing the ball to all corners of the field. Zgonina, who was on the 2013 Houston Texans staff that drafted Jones out of Bowling Green, confirmed reporters’ observations. Jones plays very much like Zgonina did and fits what Zgonina is looking for from his defensive linemen, which seems to give Jones a good shot at making the final roster.
D.J. Jones, NT3. The knock on Jones in college is that he ran hot and cold, looking like an early-round draft pick early in the season and a late-round pick as the year wore on. Zgonina’s emphasis on rotating players ought to help Jones. He and Earl Mitchell are the only two true nose tackles on the roster.
Aaron Lynch, RDE2. Every coach who has been asked about Lynch has said he has done everything that’s been asked of him and is heading in the right direction. However, the fact of the matter is that Lynch, who hasn’t exactly been Mr. Reliable heretofore, arrived for spring practices overweight. That’s a bad first impression to make on a new regime. Now that Dumervil is in the fold, Lynch will have to be very impressive as an edge rusher to make the final cut.
Earl Mitchell, NT1. Until Dumervil, 33, was added, Mitchell, 29, was the gray hair of the defensive line. He was signed for his familiarity to the team’s coaches, his hustle and his fit in the new scheme. Which is to say, he’s as safe a bet as anyone to be on the 49ers game-day roster when the run-heavy Panthers visit in Week 1.
Noble Nwachukwu, LDE3. He’s the only undrafted rookie on the defensive line. (Jimmie Gilbert has been playing SAM linebacker, which lines up along the line of scrimmage but which is technically a linebacker spot). Nwachukwu and Gilbert both are developmental players who could vie for practice-squad spots.
Pita Taumoepenu. RDE3. He’s a bit undersized at 6-1, 243 pounds, but he has a fast-revving motor that coaches love. If Dumervil doesn’t work out, it might be Taumoepenu who becomes the third-down Leo to Armstead’s first- and second-down Leo. Could the 49ers fit Taumoepenu on their practice squad? To do that, they’d first need to cut him and expose him to the waiver wire. The Steelers, Colts, Falcons, and especially the Ravens, were interested in Taumoepenu in the run-up to the draft. Taumoepenu is the fastest member of the defensive line and at the very least could have a role on special teams this year.
Solomon Thomas. LDE?. Thomas is going to miss virtually all of the spring practices. However, given his draft position and the fact that he had a similar role at Stanford, it seems likely he’ll figure heavily into the 49ers’ plans by Week 1. It probably will be as a starter at left defensive end. It also could be as an interior pass rusher on nickel downs. Maybe it will be both.
Elvis Dumervil. He didn’t work out for the 49ers last week but he did have a physical. The biggest question for him is whether he’s gotten past the Achilles injury that slowed him down the last two seasons. If the answer’s yes, then he automatically becomes the team’s best pass rusher and its most natural fit as the Leo rusher.