Over the offseason, we break down each of the San Francisco 49ers’ position groups for the upcoming 2018 NFL season. In this edition, we break down the Niners’ MIKE, WILL and SAM linebackers.
This is the ninth edition of our 49ers 2018 offseason positional breakdowns. Check out the rest of our position group breakdowns here:
Special Teams: Special Teams
Under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, the San Francisco 49ers implement a 4-3 under/over hybrid defensive scheme that utilizes two inside linebackers — the MIKE and WILL linebackers — and one outside linebacker — the SAM linebacker — on base downs. In obvious passing situations, the 49ers keep their MIKE and WILL linebackers on the field, and the SAM linebacker is replaced with an extra defensive back.
The MIKE and WILL linebackers are both inside linebacker positions, and are generally interchangeable, except for the fact that the MIKE linebacker calls the plays in the defensive huddle. The duties of the SAM linebacker — the lone outside linebacker in the 49ers’ defensive system — are fairly similar to those of an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme.
Although inside linebacker and outside linebacker are basically two different position groups, the 49ers have a number of inside linebackers who have NFL experience playing on the outside as well. This is a good thing, since the Niners may be forced to utilize some of these inside linebackers at SAM linebacker, given the team’s talent disparity between the two position groups.
We’ll start our San Francisco 49ers linebacker breakdown with one of the most talented players on the roster, and one of the NFL’s top players at his position:
LB Reuben Foster
After a breakout rookie year, 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster almost lost his job after he was arrested twice over the 2018 offseason. However, after his marijuana possession and domestic violence charges were dismissed, Foster returned to team activities, but still faces a two-game suspension to begin the 2018 regular season.
After Foster serves his NFL-mandated suspension, he will likely line up at WILL linebacker, like he did for the majority of the 2017 season. After quickly establishing himself as one of the league’s best linebackers during his rookie season, the 49ers need Foster to stay on the field, and out of any future legal trouble.
LB Fred Warner
Since Foster faced criminal charges for the majority of the offseason, 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were forced to address the possibility that Foster’s career in San Francisco was nearing its end. Lynch and Shanahan used the opportunity of the 2018 NFL Draft to select Foster’s potential replacement — and now, his future counterpart — Fred Warner.
Warner is a versatile athlete who played all over the field at BYU, and especially excelled in pass coverage. While Warner was originally projected as a WILL linebacker, the 49ers have used Warner — a team captain in college who scored a 32 on the Wonderlic test — at MIKE as well. If Warner is unable to win a starting job at MIKE or WILL, the Niners could try the linebacker on the outside — where he played at BYU — or on the inside on obvious passing downs, given the LB’s coverage skills.
LB Malcolm Smith
49ers linebacker Malcolm Smith was signed by Lynch and Shanahan in 2017 to be one of the team’s starting linebackers. The Niners paid handsomely for Smith — to the tune of $26.5 million over five years, with $12 million in guarantees — which led many to question whether the linebacker was worth such an expensive contract, given his limited production as an NFL starter.
Smith missed all of the 2017 season due to injury, and began training camp on the non-football injury list with a minor unrelated leg injury, before being activated last week. While Smith’s two seasons as a starter for the Oakland Raiders were uninspiring, the former Super Bowl MVP knows Saleh’s system from Smith’s time with the Seattle Seahawks, and is a near-lock to make the 49ers’ final roster thanks to the guaranteed money in his contract. Smith has experience at outside linebacker from his four seasons as a backup in Seattle, so even though he’ll likely begin the season starting on the inside, he could find himself competing on the outside if Warner eventually earns a starting role.
LB Brock Coyle
Foster’s unresolved legal situation helped 49ers linebacker Brock Coyle — who filled in for the team at MIKE linebacker for 10 games last season — score an expensive contract for a player who was a career special-teamer prior to 2017.
Like Smith, Coyle was originally signed last offseason due to his knowledge of the defensive system from his time in Seattle, as well as his value on special teams. However, Coyle — who was brought in to play a backup role on defense — was forced into action after Lynch and Shanahan released star linebacker NaVorro Bowman after the fifth game of the season. Coyle certainly didn’t play well in 2017 — his Pro Football Focus rating of 52.4 was the lowest among all 49ers linebackers — but he showed leadership in his MIKE role, and toughness as he played through injury. Coyle will play on special teams in 2018, and has a chance to start at inside linebacker during Foster’s absence — and his prior experience at outside linebacker could allow him to compete at SAM as well.
LB Korey Toomer
Another beneficiary of Foster’s offseason problems was Korey Toomer, who the 49ers signed to a one-year “prove it” deal to compete at inside linebacker. Toomer, who played in 46 games over his NFL career — started 16 games at inside linebacker for the Los Angeles Chargers over the past two seasons.
Toomer has recent experience with the 49ers’ defensive system after playing under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley last season. Toomer was also a member of the Seahawks for two of Saleh’s three seasons with the team. The veteran should compete for a starting job during Foster’s suspension, particularly due to his ability to defend against the run:
Here's some game film on #49ers LB Korey Toomer @Korey_Toomer. Best suited at ILB – can play either MIKE or WILL. Good pursuit and excels at avoiding and shedding blocks. Particularly effective against the run. Easy upgrade over Coyle. Should compete for a starting role. #49wz pic.twitter.com/nOulWgQRPD
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) April 9, 2018
LB Eli Harold
49ers linebacker Eli Harold — San Francisco’s starting SAM linebacker in 2017 — is the first player on this list who exclusively plays outside linebacker. The 49ers originally drafted Harold in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but the LB has failed to live up to his draft stock over his three seasons in the NFL.
While Harold hasn’t been productive, he has been able to stay healthy, and has never missed a game over his professional career. Due to his playing time, Harold was eligible for the “Proven Performance Escalator,” which ballooned his cap hit from under $1 million to $2.1 million in 2018. This could have been problematic for the linebacker, but given the team’s lack of talent at the position, the 49ers have little choice but to retain Harold for the final season of his contract. But if Harold wants to remain in San Francisco beyond 2018, he will have to show vast improvement during the upcoming season.
LB Dekoda Watson
Last offseason, Lynch and Shanahan signed linebacker Dekoda Watson to a surprisingly expensive three-year deal. Watson — a career special-teams player — filled in behind Harold at SAM linebacker and was active on special teams, but logged just four tackles over 14 games.
Watson will cost $1.6 million against the 49ers’ cap in 2018, and another $2 million the following season. While it’s unlikely that Watson will be a member of the team in 2019, he is likely to make the Niners’ final roster this season, due to his value on special teams and his backup role at SAM linebacker. Watson could be a late roster cut if second-year player Pita Taumoepenu takes a major step forward, or if one of San Francisco’s inside linebackers successfully transitions to the outside.
LB Pita Taumoepenu
49ers linebacker Pita Taumoepenu was used sparingly last season after the team drafted the college defensive end in the sixth-round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite the Niners’ need at edge rusher, Taumoepenu didn’t play a snap on defense for the team last season, and was only activated for special-teams duties in two games.
The 49ers have continued their attempt to transition Taumoepenu from defensive end to SAM linebacker, although Lynch stated the second-year player will also be given the opportunity to prove himself as an edge rusher during training camp and the preseason. Given his inexpensive contract, if Taumoepenu shows any promise, he should make the 49ers’ initial 53-man roster.
LB Elijah Lee
For many Niner fans, Elijah Lee was initially thought of as a safety lined up at linebacker, given Lee’s 6-foot-3, 228 pound frame and his uniform number, 47. However, Lee is a linebacker, and was drafted as such by the Minnesota Vikings last season, before the 49ers signed the rookie off the Vikings’ practice squad after Foster’s Week-1 injury.
Although Lee only saw 18 defensive snaps over four games in 2017, the linebacker played nearly 60 percent of the 49ers’ special-teams snaps, despite being active in just 14 games. In order for Lee to make San Francisco’s final roster in 2018, he will need to prove himself as a useful special-teams contributor and a backup option at inside linebacker.
LB Mark Nzeocha
49ers linebacker Mark Nzeocha was the second of the team’s 2017 linebackers to don a safety number — 46 — although Nzeocha looked more the part, weighing in at 240 pounds. The Dallas Cowboys drafted Nzeocha as a developmental project in 2015, but injuries limited the linebacker to just seven appearances in two seasons for Dallas.
The 49ers signed Nzeocha off the Cowboys’ practice squad last September, and activated him after Bowman’s release. Nzeocha only lined up at linebacker on nine plays in 2017, but was an active member on special teams, where he played 179 snaps over 10 games. Similar to Lee, Nzeocha needs to dominate on special teams during training camp and the preseason — while demonstrating he can produce at inside linebacker — if he wants to make the San Francisco 49ers’ Week-1 roster.
Five Matchups to Watch in Preseason Clash with Houston
The race is on for starting gigs, playing time and roster spots, and the San Francisco 49ers’ second game of the preseason against the Houston Texans provides no shortage of intriguing matchups. Here are five to keep an eye on when the Niners embark into NRG Stadium.
Jimmy G vs. the Houston defense
Starting with kind of a broader battle here, as Jimmy Garoppolo steps onto the gridiron against a Houston defense that Pro Football Focus ranks eighth against the run and fifth in pass-rushing coming into this season. The unit boasts a plethora of household names and bona fide playmakers who can get after the quarterback, but the 25th-ranked secondary seemingly remains a weakness after struggling mightily in 2017.
We only got a brief glimpse at Jimmy G during last week’s home clash with the Dallas Cowboys, and the San Francisco signal-caller completed three-of-six passes for 34 yards, while his highlight of the night occurred when he stood in the pocket to absorb a big hit from stud defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and fired a strike to Marquise Goodwin for an 18-yard gain on third-and-10.
While Garoppolo fared well on his only series of the evening, he’ll likely play a bit deeper into Saturday’s clash with Houston, and if he can get passes away in a timely fashion, he could have his way with the Texans’ secondary.
Look for Jimmy to attempt at least one deep ball to Goodwin in the speedster’s mouth-watering matchup against Kevin Johnson, who ranked dead last among 120 qualified corners last season. Pierre Garcon, who is gradually building a rapport with Garoppolo after a slow start this offseason, also gets a good matchup against veteran Johnathan Joseph (the 64th-ranked cornerback with a grade of 67.4), and it would be a good sign if he and his quarterback show that they’re on the same page with a few connections in Week 2.
Jimmie Ward vs. DeAndre Hopkins
There are two reasons why we’re looking forward to this matchup.
One, Wednesday’s training camp fisticuffs.
Two, Jimmie Ward had a rough opener against Dallas, getting torched by third-round rookie Michael Gallup for a 30-yard touchdown and failing to keep up with Allen Hurns when he hauled in a short pass over the middle and hit the jets for a 13-yard gain on third-and-four.
Coming off a subpar performance, San Francisco’s “backup everything” needs to play much better if he wants to remain in the mix for significant regular season snaps and beat out K’Waun Williams for nickelback duties, and he’ll certainly be tested against Houston’s stable of dangerous pass-catchers, not the least of which is All Pro DeAndre Hopkins, who snagged 96 receptions for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017.
Even if he doesn’t line up directly opposite Hopkins (and PFF suggests the honor could fall to Ahkello Witherspoon), the two will still be on the gridiron together just three days after brawling in practice, and they could easily cross paths. Though they reportedly shook hands after each getting ejected from the joint practice, it’s impossible to know what will happen when the competitive juices once again start flowing.
Ward, who could see a good chunk of snaps since he’s entrenched in a multi-man battle for playing time, will be tested no matter who he’s covering, and he has a golden opportunity to all but erase the disappointments of the opener with a big-time performance against a squad that should boast a high-octane passing attack.
Richard Sherman vs. Will Fuller
Staying in the secondary, we move to the other side of the field where Richard Sherman could make his San Francisco debut in an interesting matchup against third-year man Will Fuller, who missed six games last season but still hauled in seven touchdowns while notching 28 receptions for 423 yards. While the abbreviated stat-line isn’t eye-popping, Fuller’s numbers are almost certain to spike with Deshaun Watson back in the fold, and he and the second-year quarterback will look to build a rapport at the expense of Sherman on Saturday.
Sherman’s San Francisco debut carries plenty of intrigue in and of itself, but given that he’s coming off last season’s Achilles injury and a hamstring ailment in training camp, a strong outing from the former Seahawk would alleviate some concerns from the Niner Faithful.
Kyle Shanahan may err on the side of caution and refrain from leaving Sherman on the field for too many snaps in a preseason game, but all eyes will be on the Niners’ prized free agent acquisition as he goes toe-to-toe with arguably one of the league’s most talented young wideouts. Even one or two pass breakups, a solid jam at the line or a sure-handed tackle in run support would go a long way to showing Sherman is healthy and good to go for the regular season.
Sherman isn’t a lock to dress Saturday after missing the preseason opener, but he was a full participant in San Francisco’s final open practice on Monday and in the two inter-squad practices with the Texans during the week, so here’s hoping Niner fans finally get to see him in game action.
Josh Garnett vs. the Houston defensive line
It’s sink or swim time for San Francisco’s 2016 first-rounder.
Assuming he suits up Saturday, it’s not totally inconceivable that he’ll draw the start since Mike Person’s roster spot is looking more secure by the day and because the San Francisco coaches may want to see how the 24-year-old will hold up against starting-caliber players. If Garnett doesn’t start, then he’ll be under even more pressure to perform against Houston’s twos and threes.
With Person playing well enough to earn the starting nod for San Francisco’s preseason opener and Jonathan Cooper and Erik Magnuson also in the mix, Garnett’s place on the 53-man roster is tenuous at best, but he can certainly raise his stock with a strong performance against Houston’s stout front seven.
San Francisco’s offense vs. the crowd noise
San Francisco gets its first taste of football on the road on Saturday, and in a campaign where the Niners travel to thunderously loud outdoor stadiums such as Seattle, Arizona and Kansas City and open with a dome game in Minnesota, the Niners will have to learn to cope with deafening crowd noise.
Of course, the Houstonites may not be quite as jacked up and vocal for a preseason matchup as they would be for the regular season, but it’s good practice all the same.
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