The 49ers think their newest pass rusher looks like “the old Elvis,” and that’s a compliment.
The team’s talent evaluators recently watched Elvis Dumervil’s 2016 season with the Baltimore Ravens, which ended with just nine solo tackles and three sacks, both of which were the lowest totals of his 10-year career.
But they also noticed that his best games came in December, and they soon realized that the Achilles tendon injury that had robbed Dumervil of his usual explosion over the last two seasons had become less problematic by year’s end.
“We kind of unraveled the story,” general manager John Lynch said. “Martin Mayhew on my staff did a great job of saying, ‘John, I think you ought to look at this.’ Because early in the year, (the Achilles) wasn’t great. But then he took a break. And when he came back after that, it looked like the old Elvis.”
Lynch is familiar with that Elvis.
In 2006 he was a 34-year-old veteran safety on a Denver Broncos team that had finished 29th in the NFL in pass defense the previous season and was looking for draft prospects to boost a listless pass rush. The Broncos used a late fourth-round pick on Dumervil, who led the nation as a senior at Louisville with 20 sacks and set an NCAA record with 10 forced fumbles.
Despite those feats, all anyone could talk about that spring was his stature. Dumervil lacked the tall frame NFL scouts want in edge rushers. Instead, he stood just 5-foot-11 – shorter than many NFL cornerbacks – and because of that slipped to the middle rounds of the draft.
Even the Broncos didn’t know quite what to do with him at first, lining him up at defensive tackle in the preseason during his rookie year. But as the regular season got underway, they moved him to the edge where he was more effective.
Lynch liked what he saw from his vantage point in the Broncos secondary.
“I always tell people, ‘three-Mississippi’ is a little easier for a defensive back than five- or six- or seven-Mississippi,” he said. “So those guys make my job easier. We didn’t have a whole lot of that in Denver at the time. So when Elvis came in, it was a breath of fresh air for us.”
Dumervil led the Broncos with 8 1/2 sacks his rookie season, then had 12 1/2 in 2007, Lynch’s final NFL season.
Dumervil’s height indeed proved problematic – for his opponents. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk was teammates with Dumervil on the Ravens for four years and often was tasked with blocking him in practice.
“It’s different,” Juszczyk said of taking on a 5-11 pass rusher who has the wingspan of a 6-5 lineman.
“He can bull you, he can give you a spin (move), he can do whatever,” he said. “I’ve seen him duck underneath those big, 6-6 offensive tackles. Sometimes that height works to his advantage.”
Dumervil’s recent decline started in 2015 when he finished with six sacks, none of them after Nov. 30. At the end of the season, doctors looked at his Achilles, found that it was 60 percent torn and surgically repaired it. Dumervil routinely appeared on the Ravens’ weekly injury report in 2016 with a “foot” injury but didn’t reveal it was an Achilles issue until late December.
Now he and the 49ers believe he is closer to his 2014 form when he set a franchise record in Baltimore with 17 sacks. The 49ers signed him to a two-year deal Thursday, and he’s expected to be on hand for a three-day minicamp that begins Tuesday.
Lynch said it’s possible that Arik Armstead and Dumervil will rotate at the premier pass-rush spot on San Francisco’s defense – the so-called ‘Leo’ defensive end position – this season with Armstead playing on base downs and Dumervil, 33, entering on obvious passing downs.
But he said the 49ers simply need as many pass rushers as they can find and that he’s certain the 10-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowl selection will be an asset in the team’s meeting room. Dumervil’s 99 career sacks rank fourth among active players.
“Is there a little gamble with the health and the age?” Lynch said. “There is. But we feel like it’s worth it because he gives us something. First of all, he gives us a great role model for these young guys. ... Plus, he feels like he’s in a real healthy spot right now. And if that’s the case, we think he can bring a lot of production for us.”