One of the first free agents signed by coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch won’t return to the 49ers in 2019.
The team Wednesday declined the option on Earl Mitchell’s contract for the upcoming season, a source confirmed to The Bee, leaving a void at nose tackle likely to be filled by third-year player D.J. Jones. NFL Media was first to report the news.
Mitchell signed a four-year, $16 million contract in February 2017. He was brought in to provide stability in the middle of the defensive line after the team allowed the most rushing yards in club history the season prior.
Mitchell was credited with with 61 tackles and a sack over two seasons while San Francisco went from last in the NFL against the rush to 22nd and 13th in 2017 and 2018. Mitchell’s playing time decreased late this season and he was a healthy scratch over the final two games as the team gave Jones more playing time. Mitchell was a favorite of defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina, who was fired this month and replaced by Kris Kocurek.
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The 49ers will save just under $7.4 million over the next two seasons if Mitchell is released with a post-June 1 designation, according to Overthecap.com. Jones was a sixth-round draft choice out of Mississippi in 2017 and is entering the third year of a four-year rookie contract worth roughly $2.47 million.
“Earl has been a fantastic asset to this entire organization for all the things that he’s done,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Wednesday at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. “It’s an opportunity for other guys to try and step up. It will not be easy to try and replace him, that’s for sure.”
Jones, 24, made his first NFL starts in the last four games of 2018. He’s logged 27 tackles in 19 games. The 49ers like Jones for his athleticism despite his 321-pound frame. Before being drafted, Jones posted a video on social media of him dunking on a 10-foot basket.
San Francisco’s defensive line could have a significantly different look next season. The team is expected to add a pass rusher, perhaps with the No. 2 pick in the draft, and hasn’t decided to bring back 2015 first-round draft choice Arik Armstead on his fifth-year option, which would cost more than $9 million fully guaranteed.
Armstead and 2017 first-round pick Solomon Thomas saw time pass rushing from the inside next to DeForest Buckner. Regardless of the players surrounding him, Jones will have to earn his spot at nose tackle with Mitchell, 31, playing elsewhere in 2019.
“(D.J.’s) competition isn’t just at nose; it’s can he be one of our best nine or 10 defensive linemen?” Saleh said. “There’s going to be some great competition.”