Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith is an absolute force to be reckoned with. Image via ProFootballFocus.com.

Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis — the tandem that terrorized NFL teams and won the hearts of just about the entire 49er Faithful. A perfectly paired duo that stopped the run, neutralized tight ends and struck fear in opposing quarterbacks every Sunday. There hasn’t been a more impressive combination of linebackers in years.

As you know, Patrick Willis has since retired and Bowman has moved on, but the 49ers just might have an opportunity to recreate their great defense by having two great linebackers as the pillars of their defense. Rookie Reuben Foster excelled in his first season, helping the last-ranked rush defense of 2016 improve dramatically under first-year defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh. Foster was asked to immediately fill the void left by the 49er greats — and he did so admirably, bringing new hope to the franchise. While we hope Malcom Smith (former Seahawk and Raider) can thrive alongside Foster, and Brock Coyle can provide temporary relief at the position, neither of these players strikes me as game-changers at their respective positions. Coyle has his limitations and Smith is coming off injury after signing as a free agent last year. The 2018 NFL Draft provides the prime opportunity to upgrade a roster in need of some turnover. General manager John Lynch will be tasked with finding an immediate starter in round one, where he’ll have a top-10 pick. My personal big board for the 49ers would include:

These players are atop various draft analyst boards and there’s a good chance many of them will be gone before the 49ers even make a selection. Ironically, one of the players that keeps getting mocked to SF is Virgina Tech’s Trumaine Edmunds — a linebacker with freakish size and athleticism. Whilst I’m excited about the thoughts of pairing Foster with another fantastic talent at linebacker, it is not Edmunds that has me enthused, it’s Roquan Smith from the University of Georgia. What separates these two players to me is reaction time of Smith, as his instincts and play recognition allows him to react almost immediately to what the offense is doing. He is faster and much more relentless when pursuing the football. With players at NFL level, being a tad bit quicker and and more decisive is paramount to increasing the chances of linebacking prospects developing fully. Roquan Smith has good size at 6’1, 225 LBS, and he led Georgia in tackles with 137; he also had 14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks  and 17 quarterback hurries while forcing a fumble and recovering two fumbles per ESPN stats. Roquan Smith is adept in many aspects of the game, but what stands out the most is his ability to chase down ball carriers with lightning speed as displayed here. He notices the play blazes past his teammates and tackles the running back before he could cause any damage. Check out this video via JReidDraftScout  showcasing Smith’s sideline-to-sideline speed.

His instinct coupled with amazing speed allows him to be an effective blitzer who disrupts the timing and accuracy of plays as displayed here on a video via WurthDraft :

In today’s NFL, some teams like the Patriots, Falcons and Rams have started a frenzy where teams create mismatches by asking linebackers to cover running backs, fullbacks and tight ends out of the backfield and in flats. If you don’t have speed and instincts at that position, your defense will suffer immensely. Teams have started to adapt to this and we’ve seen the likes of Myles Jack and Dion Jones excel, as they’re able to cover TEs and tunning backs with speed and air tight coverage long enough to help pass rushers get sacks or the quarterback to look elsewhere. Getting a linebacker who will force teams to game plan for them is rare, and Roquan Smith is one of these types of players. Bubble screens, end arounds, check downs and outside-zone runs would be nullified by Smith, who is a perfect fit for the Will linebacker spot in Saleh’s defense. The ability to close in on ball carriers and tackle effectively is a major asset to any team. Simply, combining Reuben Foster and Smith is too good an opportunity to pass up.

Smith is able to cover running backs coming out of the flats extremely efficiently, and his sure-tackling ensures no yards after contact. Check out this video via RussNFLDraft 

Getting off the field is critical to defenses, and this is achieved by having play-makers all over the field and guys who can make stops with regularity. Roquan Smith made 74 stops for Georgia — the most of any linebacker prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft, ten more than VT’s Trumaine Edmunds per PFF.  Whilst the nickel and dime packages teams run these days has somewhat diminished the value of linebackers, the skill set Smith possesses will allow the 49ers to keep both him and Foster on the field simultaneously. The 49ers could essentially use either player to cover wide receivers, tight ends and running backs up the seams, and use the other on blitz packages as they did years ago with Willis and Bow. On tape, Smith shows a grasp of zone-coverage, he knows how far to drop and knows when to go on the offensive. Occasionally he struggles with getting off blocks and he gets pushed back by linemen, playing at the “Will” spot should allow him to line up on the weak-side. Playing this position will enable him to cover the sidelines with his impressive range and textbook tackling. I believe that Roquan Smith has the intelligence, speed, instincts and drive to not only start immediately for the 49ers, but become an All-Pro player very early in his career. With the off field issues encountered by Reuben Foster this off-season, this selection is at best a compliment for him and at worse his replacement. Let’s hope it’s the former and not the latter. Go Niners!