For a team only in the second year of a rebuild, there is a surprising lack of competition for starting roles on both sides of the ball for the San Francisco 49ers. But, despite only playing a limited role in his rookie year, D.J. Jones is a dark horse candidate to threaten for increased first-team snaps in 2018.

A sixth-round pick out of Ole Miss last year, Jones was restricted to nine games in his maiden pro season. However, he produced enough in those nine games to suggest he can threaten to leapfrog Earl Mitchell on the depth chart and become the starting 1-technique defensive tackle.

The importance of the 1-tech is decreased in a 49ers defensive scheme where nickel is their primary formation, but Jones provides upside that could make the base 4-3 defense more effective.

Seen as little more than a space-eater going into the draft, Jones flashed a surprising array of traits in his 147 defensive snaps last season, with his impressive understanding of leverage helping him excel defending against the run.

Jones comes off the snap low and with impressive explosion, resulting in plays such as this one against Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, whom he drives into the backfield before disengaging and finding the ball-carrier.


Rarely bullied off the ball, Jones consistently excelled at finding the football, with his stoutness at the point of attack allowing him to not only make tackles at the line of scrimmage but also impact the game by forcing runners to divert from their original running lane.

On the first of the two plays below against the Washington Redskins, Jones holds his ground and gets his hand into the pads and underneath the chin strap of the center before again disengaging and making an impressive ankle tackle on the ball-carrier. The second play from the Cowboys game shows him initially get moved off the ball, but then anchor and, with the help of Eric Reid, force Ezekiel Elliott to deviate from the running lane opened up by the guard getting to the second level.



What is perhaps most intriguing about Jones, though, is his athleticism. For a man of 321 pounds, Jones moves very well in space, as evidenced by this play from the Cowboys game, where he is able to evade the traffic near the line of scrimmage, displaying lateral quickness, and then get downhill to stop the running back with a strong tackle.


Though he was defending the run on that occasion, such displays of athleticism indicate Jones is a player who could produce some interior pass rush.

Early reports from training camp, which always have to be taken with a pinch of salt, corroborate that. Joe Fann of 49ers.com identified Jones as a player who shone in individual pass rush drills on Thursday's opening day.

Even though the 1-technique is not traditionally a pass-rushing position, Jones impressing in that area is important for two reasons. It is a skill Mitchell lacks -- he has never had more than two sacks in a single season -- and it was a primary factor in why Jones was kept off the field in the latter stages of last campaign, with Sheldon Day getting Jones' snaps because of Day's versatility to play as a 1-tech and pass-rushing 3-tech.

The best way to ensure he is not largely stuck watching from the sideline, or off the roster, is for Jones to also display proclivity rushing the passer. San Francisco clearly has designs on being two, maybe even three rotations deep up front, and the Niners would surely be keen to have spells where they can rest DeForest Buckner and veteran Mitchell by getting both Day and Jones on the field while still being confident of carrying an interior pass rush threat.

With Mitchell in his 30s and more of a one-dimensional player, there is a distinct opportunity for Jones to earn vastly increased playing time having done enough as a rookie to spark intrigue. However, memories in the NFL are short and, for Jones to ensure he has a more meaningful role going forward, he must build on those glimpses of promise and produce, both as a run defender and a pass rusher, with the pads on in camp.