San Francisco 49ers: Declining Earl Mitchell’s option is painful but necessary

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images /

The San Francisco 49ers have decided not to bring back Earl Mitchell in 2019, a bittersweet decision that ultimately needed to be made.

Letting go of quality veterans, especially on young rosters, is never easy. However, in the case of the San Francisco 49ers‘ decision to decline Earl Mitchell‘s 2019 option, it was a necessary evil that makes perfect sense for the franchise moving forward.

The move was announced on Wednesday, bringing the nine-year NFL veteran’s stay in the Bay Area to an end after only two seasons.

As NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport mentioned, Mitchell was an outstanding asset for the San Francisco locker room, providing leadership for a team in the middle of a youth movement. However, as we head into 2019, the 49ers are looking for more than just experience at the defensive tackle position.

During the 2018 campaign, Mitchell was largely ineffective as a rotational interior presence for the 49ers. Through 14 games, he managed 28 total tackles (two for a loss) but failed to notch a single sack. With plenty of young options along the defensive line in need of snaps, moving on from Mitchell doesn’t come as a surprise.

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On top of opening up snaps along the San Francisco defensive front, Mitchell’s departure also opens up $4 million in cap space for this upcoming season. Seeing as the 49ers have plenty of work to do this offseason between the 2019 NFL Draft and 2019 NFL free agency, having that extra financial flexibility will be huge.

If anything, this was a show of mercy by the 49ers. By showing Mitchell the door now instead of later, the 2010 third-round pick out of Arizona can latch on with a team right after Super Bowl 53. That could give him the leg up on other pending free agents, who won’t be able to sign with new teams until early March.

Either way, it’s an unfortunate but necessary development. Mitchell added value as a leader among a 49ers defensive line group that included young rising stars like DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas. At the same time, there comes a point when intangibles can only make up for so much ineffectiveness on the field. San Francisco was obviously at that point.

The move leaves the 49ers lacking proven depth at defensive tackle. And yet, there are plenty of intriguing options waiting in the wings. Think of D.J. Jones and Sheldon Day, who spent most of their time in reserve roles this past season.

We also can’t forget that Kentavius Street should be back to full health next season. The 49ers’ 2018 fourth-round pick offers a plethora of upside at defensive tackle, and should have no problem soaking up the snaps vacated by Mitchell if he can stay on the field.

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Chances are this isn’t the last we’ve heard from Mitchell, who made his name in the NFL as an impact defensive tackle for the Houston Texans. Considering his track record, chances are he’ll be putting pen to paper before long.