© Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Eleven months ago, Sheldon Day wasn’t so sure he would land another NFL job.
On Nov. 18, 2017, the Jacksonville Jaguars released Day, their fourth round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft. The defensive tackle was stuck behind several stars on one of the most talented defensive lines in the league, headlined by 2017 first-team All-Pro Calais Campbell.
“I was just the odd man out,” Day said.
Throughout a season-and-a-half with Jacksonville, Day struggled to find his “mojo,” he says. He didn’t fully understand the intricacies of the 4-3 scheme. He said he pressed in limited snaps, trying to make big plays instead of trusting they would come to him.
The Jaguars cut Day the day before they traveled to play Cleveland in Week 11. It came as a surprise.
For the next two days, the defensive tackle “tried to get (his) life together.” Everything happened so quickly. He wondered what the future held.
“To be honest, because my season was so up and down last year, I was inactive some games, played well in some, played bad in others, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Day told KNBR Thursday. “I am just happy I got a call…. It was a sigh of a relief a little bit.”
The 49ers called him two days after he was cut. His transition was smooth because 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who had previously worked with Day in Jacksonville, employs a similar 4-3 scheme. Day was immediately inserted into San Francisco’s defensive line rotation, playing no fewer than 40 percent of snaps in any game last season.
One year later, Day has emerged as one of the top players on a defensive line with three first-round draft picks.
“We’ve got a lot of interior guys that are pretty freaking good,” Saleh said last month. “The guy that some people aren’t mentioning either is Sheldon.”
Throughout this week, both Kyle Shanahan and Saleh praised Day’s impressive season-long performance in limited snaps. He has parlayed a productive preseason into six regular season games.
“We felt like we owed it to him to get him out on the football field to give him a chance to go rush the passer,” Saleh said Thursday. “And he produced.”
Day said he had an idea he would play more in Week 6, but not as much as he did. In San Francisco’s 33-30 loss at Green Bay Monday night, he played 45 snaps, equating to 63 percent of the defense’s plays, comfortably his largest workload of his 49ers tenure.
The 6-foot-1, 294-pounder earned the second-most reps out of all 49ers defensive linemen, trailing only DeForest Buckner. And, like Saleh said, Day produced. He recorded a sack, tackle, and pressure in the loss. His sack came on a third and 10 in the second quarter, forcing Green Bay to punt.
Day’s two sacks currently rank second on the 49ers behind Buckner, who has 4.5. Day has been one of the few bright spots for a defensive line that has produced just 12 sacks this season. Pro Football Focus rates Day as the 13th-best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL. He has the highest pressure rate of any 49ers player.
As first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas have struggled, Day has ascended, giving the 49ers an athletic, powerful option at both the one-technique (lined up with one of the center’s shoulders) and three-technique (lined up with the guard’s outside shoulder).
He still feels he has left some sacks on the field.
“I have messed up on, I think, silly stuff,” Day said. “But I am a technician. I like to grind myself pretty hard and make sure I get the best out of everything.”
Day identified the “silly stuff” as poor hand-placement and failing to win winnable one-on-ones. He thinks every pressure should result in a sack, and every sack should be a strip-sack.
But he has gotten into the groove that eluded him in Jacksonville. That has come with more playing time and experience in Saleh’s scheme. He says his “play recognition” has improved.
And Day’s play has followed. If that continues, he won’t have to worry about landing an NFL job anytime soon.