The 49ers defense was among the best in the NFL in 2019 and helped pave the way to a berth in the Super Bowl.
This group continued to play at a very high level in 2020 despite losing a number of starters to injury. Shortly after the season ended, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh moved on to become the New York Jets head coach, and was replaced by DeMeco Ryans. Ryans has been on the 49ers coaching staff since the current regime took over in 2017, serving as the inside linebackers coach since 2018.
While Ryans may add a few of his own wrinkles, look for the 49ers to continue to build on the scheme that Saleh put in place. With the new coordinator in position, now would be a good time to take a look at which defensive tackles the 49ers will keep, and which ones they will release.
The 49ers selected Kinlaw with the 14th pick in the 2020 draft. This put Kinlaw in the unenviable position of replacing Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. As if that wasn’t tough enough, the Covid-19 pandemic would eliminate all team activities until the start of training camp. Primarily a run-stuffing defensive tackle, this put Kinlaw behind the eight ball, as he could have benefitted from the extra work on pass-rush technique with the 49ers coaching staff.
Despite struggling throughout the first half of the season, Kinlaw would flash in back-to-back games against the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams. Against the Saints, Kinlaw would register the first sack of his NFL career and follow that up with an assist on another. The following week against the Rams, Kinlaw would intercept a Jared Goff pass early in the second half and return it for a 27-yard touchdown.
Kinlaw would lead all 49ers interior defensive linemen with 33 tackles in his rookie campaign.
Keep or Release: Keep
Kinlaw showed the ability to stuff the run as a rookie. For 2021 the 49ers will need to see him make a jump with his pass rush, otherwise Kinlaw will likely be reduced to the role of two-down run defender.
Jones is extremely athletic for his size, an attribute that helped the fourth-year defensive tackle lead all 49ers interior defensive linemen with three sacks in 2020, a career high, and tackles for loss at seven. Jones also had career highs in games played with 14 and snaps with 419.
Keep or Release: Likely won’t be back
Jones will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and it is unlikely that he will be back with the 49ers due to salary cap constraints and potential replacements that are already under contract for 2021.
Givens joined the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and spent the majority of the season on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in late December.
In 2020, Givens made the active roster out of training camp and played in 13 games including one start. Similar in stature to D.J. Jones, Givens was usually the first defensive tackle off the bench. Givens played a total of 386 snaps, finishing with 19 tackles, five for loss, one quarterback sack and three quarterback hits.
Keep or Release: Keep
With Jones likely moving on, Givens will have an opportunity to compete for the starting role alongside Javon Kinlaw for 2021.
Street was expected to be one of the top defensive linemen in the 2018 draft, but a torn ACL during his pro day changed that. The 49ers still liked the North Carolina State product enough that they would take a chance on him in the fourth round, knowing that he would need to sit out the season while recuperating.
After seeing his first NFL action at the end of the 2019 season, Street would play in 15 games and make two starts in 2020 finishing with 11 tackles on the season.
Keep or Release: Keep
Street will be entering the final year of his rookie deal and count just more than $1 million against the 49ers salary cap.
While he lines up primarily on the inside, Street has the versatility to slide outside from time to time -- an attribute that the 49ers look for in players near the bottom of the depth chart.
The third player chosen in the 2017 draft, Thomas has been a disappointment during his time in San Francisco, accumulating only 95 tackles and six sacks. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, the plan for Thomas in 2020 was for him to start at defensive tackle with Javon Kinlaw backing him up in the rotation. Those plans went out the window in Week 2 when Thomas went down with a torn ACL and was lost for the season.
Keep or Release: Likely won't be back
Thomas is an unrestricted free agent, and likely will be able to get a better deal from a team other than San Francisco. The only reason that I am not completely closing the book on Thomas is the team clearly likes him and there is a role that he could fill in 2021. If he can’t find what he’s looking for in free agency, maybe he will take a low-cost deal to re-sign with San Francisco in hope of revitalizing his career.
Daniels signed with the 49ers after going undrafted in 2020. Waived during final roster cuts, Daniels would be brought back and placed on the practice squad.
Daniels was promoted to the active roster and made his NFL debut in Week 12 against the Los Angeles Rams and would play in three other games during the second half of the season. He would play a total of 66 snaps on the season and finish with four tackles.
Keep or Release: Back in camp
Daniels is under contract for 2021 and will be back in training camp to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster.
*All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com and sports-reference.com
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