One of the more intriguing talents, but well kept secrets, on the 49ers’ roster in 2017 is Ronald Blair. Given his versatility and scope of traits as a front-seven player, there's a lot a defensive coordinator can do with him.
But when the 6-foot-4, 270-pound defender first arrived in San Francisco last year as a fifth-round pick out of Appalachian State, he entered the facility looking to plug into a 3-4 defense. That’s not the case anymore. There’s a new staff, front office and scheme, which raises all kinds of questions about Blair’s role within the defense.
However, given the changes set to take place, the 4-3 installation in 2017 could be what’s best for Blair.
After all, Blair was deemed undersized for a 3-4 end, but could be perfect for a 4-3 DT/EDGE combo. He also flashed great versatility in college, where he mastered several techniques, racking up 12.5 sacks and 32 tackles for loss over his final two seasons. Entering his sophomore campaign in the NFL and settling back into a familiar style of attack, Blair could be ready to plant his flag in the league.
But where might the hybrid defender fit?
Location 1: Outside linebacker
One of the first things you’ll notice about Blair is that while he has the torso and upper-body mechanics of an interior defensive lineman, his lower body is nimble and functional like an off-the-ball linebacker. So, right away it’s easy to like Blair as a weak- or strong-side backer in the 49ers’ new scheme.
With the tight end on the strong side, Blair as weak-side or WILL LB would have to take on less blocks, which would enable him to make plays. So, of the two potential 4-3 OLB spots, he may wind up on the weak side more often than not.
He even stood up on that side as a rookie in 2016.
And given his experience and unique build, he can handle the job from a physical standpoint. Blair can hold the edge, he seems athletic enough to surprise tight ends in coverage, he takes proper angles to run down tailbacks, and he can come downhill as a blitzer. Coming out of a App State, it was easy to see him as sort of a poor man’s Sheldon Richardson, given all the places he could line up and things he could do.
Overall, Blair could bring surprising athleticism and pop to the linebacker position. And if his football knowledge and reaction skills turn out to be special enough, it could make up for a lack of elite physical traits, namely acceleration and top-end speed.
Location 2: Defensive tackle
Blair’s most natural position may be with his hand down in the dirt over the guard/center, maneuvering through traffic en route to the quarterback or ball carrier. He grew sharper as a technician in college, as shown by his increased production and Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year honor in his final season in 2015 (7.5 sacks, INT, 19 TFL, FR, TD).
Based on his history of splash plays, using Blair as an interior tackle on obvious passing downs and taking advantage of his skills as a penetrator would be an ideal way to get him involved and on the developmental track. Blair would essentially be the twisting, attacking lineman that can shoot the A and B gaps while DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and a nose tackle to be named later absorb the protection.
And while there would be an emphasis on getting Blair involved on third-and-longs, don’t yet underestimate him as a run-stopper.
Location 3: LEO
As mentioned, with his center of gravity, hands, bend and inside moves, Blair's stood out as a pass rusher. It’s highly unlikely he winds up as “the guy” manning the LEO position for the 49ers, but he may get snaps in relief. In that sense, Blair could grow into a nice change-of-pace edge rusher.
He can stunt and spin for the Niners or simply try to get underneath some of the NFL’s more opposing blindside tackles. Agility-based rushes from the edge would be optimal given Blair’s size and particular strengths. While his bull rush move worked in the Sun Belt conference, we’ll see if it makes a dent at the pro level. It is worth noting Blair finished second among D-lineman at the 2016 NFL Combine with 32 bench reps of 225 pounds.
But he largely functions low to the ground and he’s fast off the football, and that always gives him a chance to make a play off the edge.
Picturing the role
He can play one, two or even all three of these roles as a top rotational player.
I believe Blair has the talent to create a niche for himself in 2017 and maybe expand it down the road, especially as the 49ers evolve into a 4-3. And he can certainly handle the kind of workload mentioned – he finished as a close third on the Mountaineers’ defense in 2015 with 71 tackles, including a team-high 19 for a loss. Pro Football Focus had him as one of their highest-graded defenders. Esteemed NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock issued him a third-round grade prior to the 2016 draft.
This guy is accustomed to being the centerpiece.
But the only spots the 49ers might not play Blair would be at MIKE linebacker and perhaps nose tackle or left defensive end. But, if active and on the roster Week 1, he’s likely to move around as a go-to rotational player and situational pass rusher. And, to me, Blair is a top sleeper to make contributions in this new defense.
His track record shows a defender that makes plays and makes them behind the line of scrimmage.
But one thing we’re not sure about, and one thing that was not addressed here is, can Blair be a starting linebacker for the 49ers?
I personally don’t have the slightest clue. On the surface, it doesn't look like it. But it’d be a pleasant surprise if they got a full-time contributor out of him.
Having Blair next to recovering All-Pro NaVorro Bowman, and potentially a player like Dont’a Hightower, Reuben Foster or Haason Reddick, may afford the 49ers the luxury of experimenting with him in a transitional year. Now, he’s not an alpha athlete by any means—the height/weight and straight-line speed won’t wow anyone—but on game day, he could emerge as a winner due to football smarts, functional strength, persistence and technique.
The team’s best bet would be to work Blair in as a situational player and quickly attempt to get a read on what he’s capable of.
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Media courtesy Harris Highlights