For all the talk about the 49ers’ need for a difference-making pass rusher at defensive end, they’ve added just one true edge defender with their 19 picks in the last two NFL drafts.
And that player, Pita Taumoepenu, might finally get his first NFL snaps on defense Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
The University of Utah graduate was promoted from the practice squad this week after defensive end Dekoda Watson was placed on injured reserve with a torn calf suffered in last week’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Taumoepenu has spent his entire NFL career on the practice squad, save for two games late last season when he was only used on special teams, after he was made a sixth-round pick in 2017.
“It’s been tough for him because there’s been a lot of injuries (at other positions),“ defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “But the D-Line, for the most part, has been healthy. So he was always part of the first discussion. ‘Is it time? Is it time? Is it time?’ ... So now it’s his turn. Hopefully, he takes advantage of it.”
Taumoepenu is listed at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, which is typically light for a defensive end. Adding strength and size has been the focus with athletic trainer Ray Wright, who tasked Taumoepenu with increasing weight — 15 to 20 pounds — on a number of exercises in the weight room each week while he’s been on the practice squad.
“I’m a lot stronger, to be honest,” Taumoepenu said. “People out here are grown men. You go against them, like Joe (Staley), you better bring your ‘A’ game.”
Perhaps no player has gone more against the 49ers’ premier tackle over the last two seasons than Taumoepenu, who is often charged with mimicking the upcoming opponents’ best pass rusher on the practice field. Working against a six-time Pro-Bowler each day has been instrumental in Taumoepenu developing to the point where he could finally get a shot to harass an opposing quarterback in the regular season.
“Joe’s seen everything, every type of rush. Speed, power, everything,” he said.
The 49ers took a chance on Taumoepenu’s athletic traits after playing in just 16 games at Utah. He ran a 4.67 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, which ranked in the 92nd percentile among defensive linemen. And his 6.91 seconds in the three-cone drill – which is considered one of the best measurements of agility, quickness, and the ability to change directions – ranked in the 94th percentile.
But Taumoepenu lacked the strength to convert his speed into power, which Staley said is integral for defensive ends who don’t have hulking 280-pound frames.
“A guy like (Chargers pass rusher) Melvin Ingram is a challenge,” Staley said. “He’s 6-foot-1, 6-foot-2. It’s not because of his size, it’s because of his strength. So that’s more of the issue than the guy’s size. ... (Taumoepenu) has always had great athleticism, work ethic. But over the last year that he’s been here, he’s worked a lot to get that strength up, and you can feel that strength going against him.”
Staley said strength was the key to the 49ers leader in sacks last season, Elvis Dumervil, who logged 105.5 career sacks despite measuring in at 5-11 and roughly 250 pounds – with a similar build to Taomoepenu.
“That was what made him him in his heyday,” Staley said of Dumervil, who retired in August. “His size and his natural leverage, he was an exception. I think he was barely six foot. He was so powerful in the lower body and really was able to bull rush a lot.”
Taumoepenu, who grew up on the Tonga island of Tongatapu, 3,000 miles east of Australia, said he can lift roughly twice as much weight in the bench press than he could in college. He logged 24 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the combine, but vows he can do a lot more after nearly two full seasons in an NFL weight lifting program.
“It makes pass rushing a lot easier,” he said. “It makes me feel like I can free style. If I go speed, and I get got, I can go to power. I can switch it up so O-linemen don’t figure out my favorite moves.”