For the next installment of “Cheap Free Agents the 49ers Should Target,” we’re taking a look at defensive tackles. You can check out the previous positions: safety, cornerback, linebacker and edge rusher.
Like linebacker, the San Francisco 49ers have established a solid foundation for the interior defensive line. Due to their depth on the interior, they should not spend more than $2 million on a free agent.
Veteran Arik Armstead, although versatile, is better suited to rush inside rather than the edge.
Rookie Javon Kinlaw, second-year Kevin Givens and third-year Kentavius Street all showed promise in their first consistent tastes of NFL action.
Even undrafted free agent nose tackle Darrion Daniels looked decent in a limited late-season role.
Given the holes elsewhere on the roster, and the heavy investment in Armstead, the 49ers don’t have much need for a big-money defensive tackle.
It would be ideal for San Francisco to round out its interior defensive line through the draft and/or re-signing nose tackle D.J. Jones. It makes little sense to commit large salaries to a position of strength.
Yet, if the 49ers do look toward free agency to fill out their interior defensive line, there are a few inexpensive options that would work behind the current rotation.
Four interior linemen on the open market that fit into San Francisco’s budget, and have history with newly hired defensive assistant James Bettcher, are Damon Harrison, Josh Mauro, Corey Peters and Xavier Williams.
Peters (6-foot-3, 335) would be a nice veteran option at a reduced salary. He made $3 million in the final year of his three-year contract with Arizona.
He earned the extension after two seasons with Bettcher in which he totaled 30 tackles, eight TFLs, a sack, a safety and five QB hits across 27 games. He’ll be 33 this season, and should be a cheap alternative to Jones.
The biggest name is Harrison. The former first-team All-Pro nose tackle spent 2020 in a reserve role for Seattle and Green Bay. He had nine tackles and a forced fumble in seven games.
Under Bettcher in 2018, Harrison had 31 tackles, four TFLs and a forced fumble in seven games with the Giants.
Harrison (6-foot-3, 350) is a traditional nose tackle. He doesn’t fill the stat sheet, but he does utilize his size to disrupt blocking and free up teammates.
He made $1.5 million this year, which is likely a little less than what Jones will make. The 49ers could opt for the more experienced, yet less expensive short term option to rotate with Daniels and Givens, rather than commit long term to Jones.
Mauro (6-foot-6, 290) would make a nice utility bench piece at close to the veteran minimum salary. He played three seasons in Arizona under Bettcher (2015-2017) before following him to the Giants.
In 54 games under Bettcher, Mauro had 69 tackles, 14 TFLs, 11 QB hits, three sacks, three pass deflections and two forced fumbles.
He was injured most of 2020, but returned for a brief three-game stint with Arizona and sacked Tua Tagovailoa Week 9.
One free agent that holds no ties to Bettcher, but would be an interesting addition to the line, is Chicago’s Roy Robertson-Harris.
Robertson-Harris received a huge pay increase as a second-round tender last offseason, going from $645K in 2019 to $3.26 million in 2020.
An injury cut his season in half, and will likely bring his salary down, but he remains a quality pass-rusher. He had 7.5 sacks, six pass deflections, nine TFLs and 30 QB hits across four seasons (13 starts).
Robertson-Harris (6-foot-5, 292) would make a towering third-down pass-rush partner with the 6-foot-7 Armstead. His height becomes particularly interesting when considering how Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray are both under six-foot.
Outside of special teams, the interior line might be the least needy position on the roster. But after a 2020 season marred by injury, it makes sense to build depth at a bargain price.
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