Earl Mitchell held down the starting nose tackle position pretty well for the 49ers for most of the last two seasons. At the end of last season, however, San Francisco decided to give D.J. Jones, a sixth-round draft pick in 2017, a chance to show what he could do. Jones did not disappoint.
Even though he hadn’t made a tackle since Week 4, and even though he wasn’t active the two weeks prior, Jones stepped into the starting lineup in Week 14 against the Broncos and he more than held his own with four total tackles. Jones ended up starting the next three weeks as well, and he notched 13 out of his 17 tackles for the season in those last four games.
Jones’ good performances probably factored in a little when the 49ers made the decision to move on from Mitchell this offseason. Now he faces the possibility of earning the starting position outright in training camp if he can just carry over the momentum he started at the end of last year.
Watching his film, it’s evident that Jones is really strong at the point of attack, and hard to move off the line of scrimmage.
He does a good job getting full extension with his arms to keep blockers off of him, and he has a real knack for escaping off blocks right on time to make the tackle.
I also love his motor and how he runs to the ball, even at 6’0 and over 320 pounds. For him to be that size, the guy is pretty athletic and he hustles his ass off, too. That is a winning combination for me. Jones may not ever be a big sack guy, but you are going to catch hell trying to run the ball when he’s in there. And he has just enough quickness and wiggle to at least push the pocket back into the quarterback’s lap when he does have pass-rush opportunities.
Jones isn’t guaranteed that starting spot, though. I’m a big fan of Sheldon Day and I think he will be in the mix there as well. Then you have Solomon Thomas, who might kick inside more, especially on passing downs after the 49ers drafted new starting defensive end Nick Bosa No. 2 overall this past April.
Still, I think Jones is going to be in the game more often than not on early downs, short yardage, and goal-line situations. I also believe that he is going to be a wrecking ball whenever he’s on the field.
All things considered, Jones posting 17 tackles last season was some pretty good production considering he was only active for 10 games. If he can stay healthy this season, however, he should easily be able to double, if not triple, those tackle numbers. Because he runs to the ball he should end up with a ton of assists by the end of the season, that’s for sure. I actually think he will sneak in a three or more sacks as well, rushing against play action on early downs.
When players hustle the way Jones does, they are usually rewarded sooner or later.
I was tempted to pick Thomas as my breakout player for the 49ers this season, but Jones has the clearer path to an uptick in production, as far as I can tell.
Bosa playing is going to force Thomas inside more, which is where I think he is better suited to make plays anyway, but there is no way to tell how much he will play there, or at all at this point. I’m not one of the people who are ready to call Thomas a bust, but however much patience the 49ers have left is going to run out at some point. With his role being up in the air, I just couldn’t trust Thomas to break out this year, though I definitely think he has the skills to do so if he plays more as a three-technique.
Jones, on the other hand, has a perfect opportunity in front of him. If he can nail down that starting nose tackle job, it will showcase what he is good at, playing the run, without penalizing him for not being a big-time pass rusher.
As a backup, you usually had better be able to play the run and rush the passer because there are a limited number of defensive linemen who are active on Sundays and you have to be able to fill in everywhere. As the starting nose tackle, however, that role is pretty well defined as a run defender first and foremost.
Again, I believe Jones can rush the passer a little, but I don’t see it being his biggest selling point. So he almost has to win that starting role or he might find himself deactivated on game days again this season.
His situation can inspire the kind of desperation that will motivate him to do his absolute best, and show the 49ers that he is the right man for the job. I think we will see the best D.J. Jones we have ever seen as an NFL player this season, and this his production will take a huge leap forward to help quantify that.
Confidence level: Moderate