The 49ers have traded Eli Harold, their 2015 third round pick and starting SAM linebacker, to the Detroit Lions for a conditional 2020 7th round pick. Given Harold is entering the final season of his rookie deal, as a 3-4 OLB who only has value on running downs, the compensation given to the 49ers is not a significant shock and reflects the struggles Harold has had throughout his career.
Undoubtedly not helped by the differing demands upon his weight and roles throughout his NFL career, Harold now gets the chance to go and work with former Patriots defensive co-ordinator Matt Patricia, now the Lions’ Head Coach. Patricia is one of the defensive minds I would trust to get the best out of Harold, given his willingness to use players only in ways that they do well in – likely as a base package, run stopping OLB in the Lions’ scheme. I will be intrigued to see how he does in Detroit, and 49er fans may get a chance to see their former player in week 2 when the Lions come to town.
As for the 49ers, it would appear that the short term SAM battle could come down to Mark Nzeocha and Pita Taumoepenu, two very different players. Like Harold, Taumoepenu is more of a traditional EDGE player by trade, and he has stood out on the rare occasions he has seen the field this preseason. Conversely, Nzeocha has more of a background as an off-ball linebacker. Malcom Smith also played the SAM spot in Seattle when Bruce Irvin was suspended, so he could be in the discussion, whilst rookie Fred Warner has the length, if not the size at the moment, to suggest he might be someone who could develop into the role in the future.
The 49ers’ choice of their long and short term replacements could well change the look and feel of the defense. In Robert Saleh’s final year in Jacksonville, the Jaguars actually used an over front more often than the under front their defense was theoretically known for, because they were using Myles Jack at the SAM spot. More of an off-ball linebacker could necessitate a similar shift from the Niners, whilst Taumoepenu would allow them to stick with the under front they used the majority of the time last season.