Niners live examines the role and versatility of Eli Harold within this new look 49ers defense and how he can be a key contributor from multiple positions in this talented and aggressive front seven.
What we already know
Eli Harold is a great talent, but has yet to meet expectations. It can be said he’s yet to play his best football due to scheme, essentially playing out of position, and injury. As a third-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft, he was projected to be a premier speed-rusher known for his first step, burst, upper body strength, and fluidity using both his feet and hands simultaneously (NFL.com).
From day one with the 49ers, Eli Harold faced a steep learning curve as he was tasked with playing more of a 3-4 outside linebacker. In a sense, this handicapped his skill set and led to inconsistent play. While he was listed as a defensive end/outside linebacker in college, when he was standing up, his duties were to rush the passer as a stand-up edge rusher (his strength) more so than that of a 3-4 outside linebacker with coverage responsibilities as seen in the video below of him at the University of Virginia.
As shown in the video, he’s talented enough to excel as a defensive end with his hand in the ground or an edge rusher standing up. With the new 4-3 under scheme of Robert Saleh, he’ll have an opportunity to showcase his talents and versatility from both positions.
Why Eli Harold
In this demanding sport of football, the more positions one can play, the more valuable that player is to the team. Think about it from the aspect of a standard glass cleaner such as Windex, that cleans glass and glass only. Now consider a product such as 409 glass and surface cleaner than can clean glass and just about everything else around the house. That’s where your all-purpose cleaner, Eli Harold will be useful on this 49ers defense.
Consider Eli Harold the all-purpose cleaner that can be used not only to keep your glass looking see-through-clean, but can also be used on everything else to have it looking and smelling clean enough to pass a military style inspection. With his experience rushing the passer from a three-point stance (hand in the ground defensive end) and a two-point stance (stand up edge rusher), he has the versatility to play both SAM (strong side linebacker) or OTTO in the Robert Saleh defense, and he can line up playing the LEO (pass rushing defensive end/specialist) position, as well.
According to a recent report, “In Saleh’s defense, the “Sam” linebacker and “Leo” defensive end are considered somewhat interchangeable in that those who play Sam generally can also play Leo. In fact, while the Sam is considered a linebacker, that position actually falls under the jurisdiction of defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina” (via ESPN.com).
Hopefully, restoring your GPS helped, and now you’ve again found your way. Now that the all-purpose cleaner analogy makes more sense, let’s continue. With his ability to rush the passer from multiple positions, Eli Harold deserves the all-purpose cleaner title. At the moment, the SAM position is led by veteran Ahmad Brooks along with journeyman and scheme familiar Dekoda Watson. Versatility will be one of Eli Harold’s best attributes this season seeing as how he can play a linebacker position (SAM/OTTO) and a defensive line (LEO) position. Despite names like Arik Armstead and Aaron Lynch vying for the LEO position, Eli’s ability to play both positions should raise his stock, production, and snaps.
The reasonable expectations
To again address the objective aspect of “objective” optimism, Eli has yet to live up to his expectations of being a premier edge/pass rusher coming out of college, and is in a make or break point in his career. As one of the holdovers from the old regime, he’ll have to truly assert and prove himself to preserve his spot on this roster. In all honesty, it’s not a matter of him potentially being a cap casualty, because if he produces, it won’t be considered such. In this case, it’s a matter of whether he can prove to be a commodity, all while learning yet another new position. Two, if he lines up at LEO.
Since everyone loves happy endings, let’s continue with such and discuss why the team should have an increased level of optimism for Eli. The 49ers defense is now under the direction of Robert Saleh and his one gap 4-3 under scheme, so he will be back where he thrives, coming off the edge drooling while applying pressure/stuffing the runner, chasing down the ball carrier, and pressuring the quarterback. In addition, he’s fully healthy for the first time ever after dealing with a toe injury last season as he stated via a tweet in late January (see below). So he’s 100% and ready to display that dawg mentality he was known for while in college and show the 49ers why they drafted him, and in turn, secure his roster spot.
I've never been able to push off of my big toe ! This season will be the first time that I will be 100% ever in my football career📞🙏🏾
— Ⓜ️adⓂ️ax (@EliHarold_) January 29, 2017
Despite the unfamiliar scheme of a 3-4 outside linebacker or various injuries, Eli is a unique talent with untapped potential. His work ethic, skillset (strength, speed, and burst), drive, and new defensive scheme should allow him to excel and do what he does best and go get the quarterback. Picture this if you will. On early downs, he has the strength to line up coming off the edge at SAM linebacker and on obvious passing downs, he’s versatile enough to line up at the LEO defensive end spot. Either way, if he can impact the game by hurrying the quarterback and forcing fumbles as he did on Carson Palmer as seen in this video, this defense will be fun to watch.
At minimum, just setting that edge and forcing the play to the teeth of this defense will be a plus, and Eli should have ample opportunity to pin his ears back and leave all 10 fingerprints on the quarterback/ball carrier and the outcome of games in this upcoming 2017 season. Go Niners!
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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Kevin Mitchell Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Editor NinersLive.