San Francisco 49ers: The Right 53 Featuring the Defense Part 1

Okay, the offseason workouts (let’s be honest, OTA’s and mini camps are just that) are a wrap, and it’s time to take a realistic look at which players will stand out and punch their ticket to make up the 53-man roster. With that being said, let’s get into it working from front to back, starting the interior defensive line, followed by the defensive ends, linebackers, and secondary.


In part one of this two-part “The right 53 featuring the defense”, series Niners Live provides its perspective of which players earn their spot on the final roster after training camp and preseason solidifying their spot leading into September when it really counts. The first order of business is the heart and soul of this team, the defense. The offense will be featured in part 2.

Nose tackle, 0 technique/1 technique (keep three)

  • Quinton Dial
  • Earl Mitchel
  • D.J. Jones

Quinton Dial – despite previously playing out of position at NT, has continued to flash displaying his skill set and value to the 49ers defense. With the switch to the four-man front of the 4-3 under and now playing his original position of defensive tackle; look for him to have his biggest impact yet.

Earl Mitchell – another experienced NFL veteran has shown why he was added to the roster, making plays in the middle of this defense thus far.

D.J. Jones – rookie sixth-round pick Jones has tremendous athleticism and upside and is primed to make a name for himself in the middle of this retooled 49ers defense. This guy can flat out ball!

Defensive end, 3 tech, 4 tech, 5 tech (keep four)

  • DeForest Buckner
  • Arik Armstead
  • Solomon Thomas
  • Ronald Blair

Odd man out: Noble Nwachukwu, Tank Carradine, Chris Jones

Transitioning to the 4-3 under scheme and the addition of the LEO position and SAM playing at the line of scrimmage under new DC Robert Saleh, look for plenty rotation along the defensive line. Unfortunately for some of the vets, the young talent and depth is deep on the defensive line, leaving the 49ers with multiple options upfront as well as multiple decisions to make. The versatility and youth of Armstead, Buckner, Blair, and Thomas make the choice of who to keep that much more daunting, but it’ll be fun to watch how this all plays out. Carradine and Jones are two vets who may end up being the odd man out due to the youth movement, but both players should benefit from the switch to the 4-3 under and will have ample opportunity prove their worth on this defense in training camp and the preseason.

Inside linebacker (4)

  • NaVorro Bowman
  • Reuben Foster
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Ray-Ray Armstrong

Odd man out: Brock Coyle, Donavin Newsom

The 49ers are high on Coyle based upon scheme fit and familiarity due to his time with the Seattle Seahawks playing with Robert Saleh. He’s also solid on special teams, but special teams talent is plentiful on this roster and he lacks the coverage and run support ability of Armstrong, so he, too, may be the odd man out. We’ll soon find out what’s more important, versatility or familiarity. Whatever the case may be, it’ll soon be determined once they start banging in training camp. Newsom is a unique talent, but may be a practice squad participant at best, especially if Foster is a full go with no restrictions after shoulder surgery.

Outside linebacker SAM/LEO (keep five)

  • Ahmad Brooks
  • Elvis Dumervil
  • Eli Harold
  • Aaron Lynch
  • Dekoda Watson

Odd man out: Pita Taumoepenu, Jimmie Gilbert

Watson gets the nod due to his value on special teams and the case he’s made for himself thus far. The rookies, Taumoepenu and Gilbert, both bring intriguing skill sets to the defense, but both also have a long way to go. Training camp and preseason may change the look of this list slightly (based on production and performance of course), but at the least, one of the two rookies should make the practice squad. The other will be the odd man out, especially with the addition of Pro Bowl veteran and sack artist, Dumervil.

Cornerback (keep six)

  • Rashard Robinson
  • Ahkello Witherspoon
  • Keith Reaser
  • Dontae Johnson
  • K’Waun Williams
  • Will Redmond

Odd man out: Adrian Colbert, Prince Charles Iworah, Zach Franklin, Will Davis

Seeing as how the secondary is about the most unsettled area of the defense with no lock at the #2 corner, the more options, the better with this unit. With the combination of talent here, the 49ers can mix and match size and speed when rotating their defensive backs allowing them to be more versatile. Adrian Colbert is a name that looks to jump up this depth chart. He has an ability to play special teams, corner or safety, and he has a big hit, big play ability not to mention he fits right in with the dawg mentality talent in this secondary.

Safety (keep three)

  • Jimmie Ward
  • Eric Reid
  • Jaquiski Tartt

Odd man out: Lorenzo Jerome, Don Jones, Vinnie Sunseri, Chancellor James

If the 49ers keep six corners, that means there’s only room for three safeties. This group may very well be the most interesting. In the event the team decides to keep four safeties (for depth purposes and as an insurance policy), with the injury history of Ward and Reid, Jerome and James are both intriguing talents at free safety, strong safety, and on special teams. Jerome is a versatile athlete that can contribute in the return game as well as in the secondary, and James is a thumper at the safety position and is an all-around great football player. Training camp will determine which makes the roster, practice squad, and worst-case scenario, odd man out.

For those of you that have played this sport or watched for an extended period of time, you know, like I do, it’s all smiles and Hallmark cards until the pads start clacking. Translation, that’s when the “dawg mentality” and the “who wants it more” will be put on display. So you may want to put your pompoms down and your fan hood on the shelf to avoid the disappointment, if any, if your (mine, as well,) favorites don’t make the team.

Just like in a game of spades, the 49ers have to play with the hand they have been dealt, but that’s okay, and the team will be just fine if they play their hand correctly. From the front seven to the secondary there’s talent, effort, the dawg mentality, the “it” factor, ability to create turnovers, pressure the quarterback, you name it. The beauty of it all is this team, starting with the defense, has the potential to be great, and the opportunity to restore the prestige, respect, and reputation to this franchise as long as they assemble and play with “The right 53”. See you soon in part 2 with the pulse of this team, the offense. Go Niners!

Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the fan and analyst.

As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.

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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comPro Football unless otherwise indicated. Author, Kevin Mitchell Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Editor NinersLive.