With the Reuben Foster court proceedings taking place, much can be said about the situation: it’s insane. With Foster’s girlfriend, Elissa Ennis, testifying that it was all an elaborate plan to get at the 49’ers linebacker for breaking up with her, the outcome still remains very foggy. One thing that does seem likely is that the DV charges will be dropped, if that’s the case, then the only remaining charge on Foster will be the outstanding marijuana charge. If the charge holds, then Foster will be placed on a drug program, in which if he fails again, will then be suspended for 2 games minimum. With that being said, it’s believable that Foster will not be missing an extended amount of time next season, so what does that mean for the rest of the 49ers LB’s? Are their spots safe? How does it affect their playing time?
Fred Warner (R): SAFE
There is no reason to believe Warner’s spot would be in jeopardy with the eventual return of Foster. Coming out of BYU, Warner finished his senior year with 87 tackles, 48 of those being solo, as well as 9 of those for loss. Aside from being a sure tackler, Warner was also above average in coverage, deflecting 5 passes his senior year, as well as reeling in 1 interception that year also. With Foster out, Warner is almost an exact clone of Foster — both physically and mentally on the field. We could expect Warner to begin the season in the MIKE position on defense, until more clarity appears with the Foster case. Once he returns, it’s possible that Warner will either then fill out the WILL.
Malcolm Smith: SAFE
Projected to play the “WILL” position on defense, there is also no reason to believe that Smith will lose any playing time on the field. Smith missed all of the 2017 season with a torn pectoral injury. Looking back at his 2016 season with the Raiders, Smith finished with 86 total tackles, mixing it up as LB, as well as dropping into man coverage against TEs and slot WRs on occasion. However, we can expect that when Foster returns, Smith’s snaps on the field may decline. Foster would return to the MIKE position, leaving Warner and Smith becoming interchangeable on defense, primarily at the WILL position. Both guys could fill either the SAM or the WILL position, and at some point, in some cases we may even see all 3 guys on the field at once when Foster returns. In the moment however, barring any injury or setback, Smith will definitely start the first few weeks of the season. Smith is currently in his 2nd year of a 5-year contract.
Brock Coyle: SAFE
After beginning the 2017 season as a backup, Coyle quickly found himself earning more playing time as the injuries began racking up on the 49ers front seven. Losses to both Foster and Smith, as well as the departure of NaVorro Bowman, opened the door for Coyle to step in and play immediately. Coyle found himself in a good situation, earning praise from GM John Lynch. Lynch stated:
“Brock [is] a guy we can count on and it was great to see him play the way he did when given an opportunity.”
When he filled in for Bowman, Coyle played the MIKE position between weeks 6-8. He would then finish the rest of the season at the WILL position. With flexibility in multiple spots, Brock fills out as a key depth piece for the other LB’s when the season comes around. Coyle recently signed a 3 year contract worth up to $8.4M. Coyle finished the 2017 season with 1 pass deflection, 1 forced fumble, and 36 tackles.
Korey Toomer: SAFE
Acquired not too long ago via free agency, Toomer is expected to fill out the depth chart as a backup player — assuming he makes the 53 man roster. Toomer is expected to be competing with Coyle, Mark Nzechoa, Elijah Lee, Pita Taumoepenu, Eli Harold, and Dekoda Watson for both a special teams spot and backup spot on the defense. Toomer, during his stint with the Chargers, played both the MIKE and the WILL positions for the team. However, an advantage Toomer does have, is that he is familiar with the system DC Robert Saleh runs on defense — having experience when Saleh was a defensive assistant for the Seahawks in 2012 (the team that originally drafted Toomer). In the 2017 season, Toomer finished with 29 tackles, as well as 3 pass deflections and 2 forced fumbles. Much like Coyle, Toomer is expected to be a key sub/depth piece for the 49ers front seven.
Pita Taumoepenu: SAFE
Pita is still a work in progress as he continues to develop his pass rushing and off-ball skills. Drafted in 2017, Pita saw very little playing time in his rookie year, appearing in only two games. To put that into perspective, during Pita’s senior year at Utah he saw significant playing time, where he contributed 41 total tackles, 12 of which were for loss, as well as dealing 9 sacks. In college, Pita did play as a defensive end, but projects to play the SAM position and possibly LEO as well, according to Robert Saleh. As far as Pita as a player, Lynch stated:
“You need someone with great speed and you need someone with relentless effort. And that’s the one thing that jumped off the screen. He can run and he plays with his hair on fire.”
With that mindset, it’s safe to say Pita’s spot on the roster is secure, although he will need to show signs of improvement if he wants significant playing time. For now, he’ll remain as a special teams and rotational player.
Dekoda Watson: SAFE
Joining the 49ers in 2017 after stints with the Buccaneers and the Broncos, Watson quickly found himself as a key piece of the special teams unit throughout the whole season. Playing in 14 games, Watson heavily supported what was an overall successful special teams unit. In 2012, Watson won a special teams player of the month award in November. While showing little upside as an on the field player, Watson’s spot is primarily secure due to his outstanding reputation for being a leader of the special teams defense. At the least, Dekoda figures to be a depth piece at the SAM position, if the situation calls for it. Watson is currently in his second year of a 3 year, $5.1M dollar contract.
Eli Harold: ON THE BUBBLE
One of the few remaining players from the Trent Baalke era, Harold’s spot on the team remains fairly unknown. With the new regime set in place, the vast majority of Baalke players have slowly been purged from the roster. Harold is practically the odd man out of the LB core. In the 2017 season, Harold started 11 of 16 games, contributing 26 total tackles and 2 sacks. Playing mostly the SAM position, Harold’s stats won’t be too impressive, as the SAM mostly sets up for other players to make huge plays/tackles. Robert Saleh stated:
“I’m not a big stat guy in the fact that if you just watch the tape you’ll see Eli has improved immensely over the course of the year, even since a year ago, and the guy is only 23 years old so he’s got a lot of room to grow also.”
With that being said, it seem’s that Harold’s spot may be safe, although there are no guarantees that he’s a lock at his position. It is apparent that Lynch and Shanahan covet the players that they’ve signed/drafted the past two seasons, which makes Harold’s spot all that murkier on the team.
Elijah Lee: ON THE BUBBLE
Signed from the Vikings’ practice squad, Elijah Lee was mostly a special teams contributor for San Francisco during the 2017 season. Not seeing much playing time on the field at all, Lee had very little chance to show any sort of potential he holds as a LB. He projects to be a special teams player, with more playing time likely coming in garbage time, assuming he makes the 53 man roster for his second season. At Kansas State in his junior year, Lee totaled 110 tackles, in which 6.5 were for loss. He also intercepted the ball twice that season. While he shows some upside athletically, Lee’s going to have to fight for a spot once cuts begin.
Mark Nzechoa: ON THE BUBBLE
Very similar to Dekoda Watson, Nzechoa was also a key contributor to the special teams unit in 2017. Lynch wound up re-signing Nzechoa to a one-year contract through the 2018 season. However, Lynch and Shanahan have proved that they aren’t afraid to release players if they believe someone else can fill the role better. Nzechoa played a mere 9 snaps defensively all season, which keys into his role primarily being special teams only. With loads of young talent coming in on defense, Mark will find himself fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster. With the eventual return of Reuben Foster, many questions will arise at the LB position, and be answered as time moves on. There is still plenty of time for the team to go after any last second UDFA’s or current free agents. In the meantime however, the current group of LBs on the roster are relatively safe, although nothing is guaranteed. More information will continue to come out as Foster’s court case becomes more clear, which will heavily influence how this unit shapes out. John Lynch isn’t afraid of roster turnover, and the 49ers’ 53-man roster will be a sight to see once the football season comes near.
Any way you cut it, the 49ers look to be in a much better place than last year at the LB position. With the recent news in Foster’s case, and drafting Warner earlier in the draft, San Francisco looks to have found key pieces to man the middle of their defense for years to come!
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