The 49ers found a big body to plug the center of their new defense on Friday when Earl Mitchell agreed to a four-year deal worth $16 million.
The 49ers beat out three other teams – Seattle, Atlanta and Denver – in landing Mitchell, who is 6-foot-3, 310 pounds and will play the run-stuffing defensive tackle role in the team’s 4-3 defense. Seattle and Atlanta play a similar defense to the one new coordinator Robert Saleh will install this year in San Francisco.
Saleh, 38, spent time as a Seattle defensive assistant before following ex-Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to Jacksonville for three seasons. Mitchell’s deal is not yet official – he was in Atlanta on Friday – but a source with knowledge of the situation who is unauthorized to speak on the record, said he will make $5.5 million in the first year of the contract.
The 49ers merely dipped their toe in free agency a year ago with guard Zane Beadles the only Week 1 starter the team signed in March 2016. New general manager John Lynch already has acquired three players –cornerback K’Waun Williams, wide receiver DeAndre Carter (Sacramento State) and Mitchell – and free agency doesn’t begin until March 9.
Mitchell, 29, got a head start on the open-market period when the Dolphins released him last week. He is expected to help a 49ers run defense that not only finished last in the NFL in 2016 but sent a franchise record in allowing 2,654 yards on the ground to go with a league-worst 25 rushing touchdowns allowed. Miami’s run defense finished 30th last year.
San Francisco’s top interior defensive lineman from a year ago, Glenn Dorsey, will be a free agent next month, and the 49ers have not been eager to re-sign him because he has missed big chunks of recent seasons with a torn biceps and an ACL injury. Quinton Dial and Mike Purcell are other options, but neither is perfectly suited for the role Mitchell will play.
In addition to a run-stuffing defensive tackle, the 49ers could stand to add an elite pass rusher and another inside linebacker or two to provide depth and competition to NaVorro Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong. The 49ers are contemplating moving Jimmie Ward from cornerback to safety, the position Pro Bowl player Earl Thomas plays for the Seahawks.