After looking at the 49ers’ needs and potential prospects along the defensive line, we now move onto the linebackers – an area of undoubted weakness last season that must be upgraded if this defense is going to have any hope of improvement.

Need levels:

  • 10 – no backup calibre options at the position
  • 9 – poor backup calibre options at the position
  • 8 – average backup calibre options at the position
  • 7 – good backup/poor starting calibre player at the position with backups/average player with no depth
  • 6 – average starting calibre player at the position
  • 5 – good starting calibre player at the position
  • 4 – very good starting calibre player at the position/good player with good backup quality player(s)
  • 3 – Pro Bowl calibre player at the position/multiple good to average starters
  • 2 – All-Pro calibre player/multiple Pro-Bowl to good starters
  • 1 – Likely Hall of Famer/multiple Pro Bowl players at the position

*Options are just a selection

SAM linebacker

When playing off the ball, this is the strong side linebacker. Far more commonly however (70% of the SAM’s total snaps) he will be asked to play with his hand in the dirt on either the strong or weak side of the defensive line as the OTTO linebacker.

Ahmad Brooks or Eli Harold are the most likely options at this position and 49ers fans will hope there is an open competition over training camp between the two. Additionally, Dekoda Watson or Malcolm Smith could play the position.

Need level: 7 (poor starting calibre player at the position with backups)

Early round options:

  • Tyus Bowser
  • TJ Watt

Watt and Bowser both carry considerable upside as pass rushers (enabling them to be third down specialist rushers) whilst Bowser is also an excellent coverage defender. Bowser especially would give the 49ers great versatility at the position and allow them to do a lot of different things out of base packages. Bowser at the top of round 2 would be a great pickup given his versatility.

Mid round options:

  • Ryan Anderson
  • Vince Biegel

Not a significant drop off here, with Anderson being an incredibly well rounded player but lacking the athleticism of Watt and Bowser. Biegel was the lesser touted prospect at Wisconsin and will likely have to put some weight on.

Late round options:

  • Josh Carraway

Carraway offers some upside due to his athletic traits primarily, and produced at a good level in college. He does however have issues against the run that would have to be coached up considerably.

MIKE and WILL linebackers

Almost entirely off-ball linebackers and the middle of the defense. Saleh has already said that the MIKE and the WILL are largely interchangeable and the MIKE will be the better communicator. Both players will need to be able to cover running backs and tight ends as well as stop the run very well.

Navorro Bowman would be expected to start as the MIKE linebacker, though he has very little by way of quality backups, which is all the more worrying given his injury history.

Assuming Bowman starts at MIKE, Malcolm Smith would be expected to start at WILL, though his play has regressed considerably since leaving the Seahawks. Ray-Ray Armstrong would be expected to be the primary backup if Bowman and Smith start. Behind him, Brock Coyle and Shane Skov would likely battle it out.

MIKE need level: *5* (special circumstance, Pro Bowl calibre player at the position (normally a 3) but major lack of depth, Bowman’s injury history and the importance of the position boost this need considerably)

WILL need level: 7 (good backup/poor starting calibre player at the position with backups)

Early round options:

  • Reuben Foster
  • Haason Reddick
  • Zach Cunningham

Given the fact that the 49ers have a significant need at WILL as well as a worrying lack of depth at MIKE, it would seem to be very important position to target early in the draft. Foster is the dream pick up and his nightmare draft season could see him fall to the top of the second round, where he would be an absolute steal. Reddick would also be a great pickup providing enormous versatility whilst Cunningham has significant upside as well as being capable of playing immediately. Foster’s problems could see him picked below both Reddick and Cunningham.

Mid round options:

  • Alex Anzalone
  • Anthony Walker
  • Jayon Brown

Anzalone’s talent could see him picked higher but his significant injury history could push him down boards. Walker has a fantastic reputation and is a playmaker in both facets of defense whilst Brown stands out most as a coverage ‘backer. The 49ers could feasibly target one of those players having taken someone earlier on.

Late round options:

  • Elijah Lee
  • Paul Magloire

Again, given the need at the position, the 49ers should be looking to target someone earlier in the draft. Both of these players have the athletic tools and some good film but I would only be happy with drafting them if someone was taken earlier on as well.

Conclusion to Part 2

The linebacking corps is undoubtedly an area of significant need for the 49ers, and that’s before you even consider what could happen if Navorro Bowman fails to recover well from his injury.

Fortunately there are a plethora of options throughout the draft that the 49ers can look to acquire who can immediately upgrade their linebacking corps, and I would not be surprised to see them take two players to bolster this part of their defense.