49ers: Looking back on Earl Mitchell’s impact on defense

With the 2017 season now over, Niners Live reflects on the performance of veteran defensive lineman Earl Mitchell and his impact on the new look four-man front defense.


Early struggles

Earl Mitchell was signed on to help a struggling run defense by clogging the middle from his nose tackle/defensive tackle position. He got off to a rough start and even made one question the judgment of new General Manager John Lynch as he had this to say about the signing.

“As soon as Earl hit the open market, he became a priority for us to sign. A man of high character, he represents everything we want to be as a football team. Earl is a tone-setter who plays the game with a tremendous passion and the effort necessary to win in this league” (via the team’s website).

John Lynch spoke highly of Mitchell, but initially, it seemed he was wrong in his assessment. Mitchell was ineffective and was also outplayed by rookie defensive tackle D.J. Jones. I’m sure most were hoping Lynch kept his receipt after signing Mitchell, because for a while there, a refund was definitely on the table and getting his money back needed to be considered.

Numbers never lie

Standing 6’3 and 310 lbs., Mitchell’s size screams run stuffer, but he’s actually struggled in that department and the grades he’s been given show it. In 2016 he was given a run grade of 39.2 (out of 100) and earned a run grade of 41.8 in 2017 (per Pro Football Focus subscription required). On a bright note, as shown in this NFL week 14 highlight video, however, Mitchell did make occasional splash plays versus the run. Don’t want to hit play and possibly jeopardize the flow of your reading by transitioning from reading to watching, then having to come back and find where you left off in the article? No problem, I dabble in play by play from time to time.

It was a week 14 road game against the Houston Texans on a 4th & 1 play while trailing 3-0 with 2:53 left in the first quarter on the 49ers 40-yard line. Pre-snap, Mitchell was lined up in a 1 technique, just off the right shoulder of the center. At the snap, Mitchell got a great jump on the snap, shot the A gap, executed a beautiful swim move as he beat the center, face planting him on the turf face first as if he was the star in a Febreeze commercial, and greeted Lamar Miller in the backfield for a 3-yard TFL (tackle for loss). The play forced a turnover on downs and the 49ers took over at their own 37-yard line. Impressive? Yes. But, also inconsistent, because unfortunately, this was one of only a few impact plays he had of this kind versus the run.

Room for improvement moving forward

Mitchell’s final numbers in 2017: 33 total tackles (19 solo), 3 TFL,1 sack and 4 pass defenses. The highlight in the video above would lead one to think this was his usual performance. False! Mitchell was more productive/disruptive in the passing game as he generated pressure up the middle right in the face of the quarterback. He graded out higher versus the pass in 2017 with a 76.2 grade (second to Deforest Buckner and up from the 74.9 2016 grade).

As this 49ers defense continues to grow, gel, and improve, Mitchell has plenty to work on if he wants to be considered a key cog in the 49ers defense. If he can manage to play more consistently, it’ll bode well for him and the future of the 49ers defense. Go Niners!

Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the faithful fan and analyst from an objective/analytical lens, of course. Often imitated, but never duplicated.

All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comPro Football Focus49ers.comESPN.comNFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Co-Author, Kevin Mitchell Staff Writer at Niners Live and  Co-Author, Content Creator, EditorSequoia Sims.