49ers parting ways with DT Earl Mitchell ahead of free agency

MOBILE, Ala. -- The San Francisco 49ers are parting with one of the first free-agent signings of the Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch era.

The Niners confirmed Wednesday that they have informed defensive tackle Earl Mitchell they won't be exercising his option for the 2019 season. The 49ers made the move now in part to give Mitchell a head start on looking for a new team before free agency begins in March.

"Earl has been a fantastic asset to this entire organization," defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "... It's an opportunity for other guys to try to step up and it will not be easy to try to replace him, for sure."

Mitchell was scheduled to count $4.45 million against the salary cap had he been on the roster next season. The 49ers are open to bringing Mitchell back at a lesser price should the opportunity arise.

In the meantime, the Niners move forward with multiple in-house options to replace Mitchell. Third-year nose tackle D.J. Jones is the best bet to step in for Mitchell. Mitchell was a healthy scratch for the last two games of the season, with Jones starting in his stead over the final four contests.

Jones, who joined the Niners as a sixth-round pick out of Ole Miss, had 17 tackles on the season with 13 coming in those last four games. But Jones isn't the only option, as the Niners also toyed with different looks that included end Arik Armstead playing the nose tackle spot in nickel packages. Armstead's play there could pave the way for more of that look in 2019.

"I thought [Jones] did a good job," Saleh said. "Obviously, he still needs to get better. There's still going to be a lot of competition for him. I thought Arik Armstead stepped in at the nose in nickel and showed some things that created versatility for that entire room, so his competition is not just at nose, it's can he be one of the best 10 defensive linemen? And that goes for everyone."

The Niners signed Mitchell on Feb. 28, 2017, less than a month after officially hiring Shanahan as head coach and Lynch as general manager. Miami had released Mitchell in a scenario similar to the one that played out with the Niners, as a means to give him an early bite at free agency.

In two seasons in San Francisco, Mitchell had 61 tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery and three batted passes.

Mitchell, 31, could be one of multiple high-priced veterans the Niners part ways with before free agency. Receiver Pierre Garcon and linebacker Malcolm Smith, both of whom have had injury-plagued tenures since signing as free agents in 2017, are scheduled to count $8.275 million and $5.45 million, respectively, against the salary cap in 2019.

Shanahan said Tuesday he has already had some open discussions with veterans like Garcon and while nothing has been made official, he's expecting those decisions to be made in the near future.

"We've got to see what our roster is like, how the salary cap plays out through free agency and everything, and we're not there yet with our whole plan," Shanahan said. "There's a lot of things that are fluid and we're working through those things.

"I think we'll have it resolved sooner than later."