Niners Live follows as promised with the second installment of this two-part series as we continue to break down the top camp position battles. Highlighting the lead battles and even the importance of the rotational key cog as well as those players on notice in Santa Clara, this time we discuss the second level of the defense, the linebackers.
Strong side linebacker (SAM) “lead battle” (Ahmad Brooks vs. Eli Harold)
Ahmad Brooks, as previously discussed in 49ers: Looking at Ahmad Brooks’ Role in DC Robert Saleh’s 4-3 Under Scheme, is again entering the season as a veteran starter that could lose his job due to age. Thus far, even with all talk of aging, he’s produced every season. He’ll have a much more heated battle this time around with younger guys chomping at the bit to show what they can do at his position.
Eli Harold has his best shot at showing his worth playing the same position, but as recently mentioned in 49ers: Developmental Stage Featuring LB Eli Harold, he has yet to come fully into his own and is still developing. His development will have to speed up this camp and preseason if he wants to make this roster. The time is now, Eli.
Rotational “key cog” battle (Eli Harold vs. Dekoda Watson)
Harold and Dekoda Watson will compete for a rotational role at SAM. Watson is more so a special teams ace, but his familiarity with the 4-3 under scheme and experience carry some weight, so Eli will have to bring his A game at all times. This is another battle worth keeping an eye on to see who steps up.
On notice (Jimmie Gilbert)
Jimmie Gilbert is an undrafted, talented rookie with plenty growing left to do and some strength to gain, but with a strong performance he could find himself on the practice squad. He may even see snaps in rotation if he works hard enough and outworks the vets.
Weak side linebacker (WILL) “lead” battle (Malcolm Smith, Ray Ray Armstrong, Reuben Foster)
Malcolm Smith was signed to a five-year deal in the off-season and brings both scheme familiarity and a veteran presence to the defense, and has even seen success and a Super Bowl in his career. He looks to be the lock at WILL for now, but keeping it from the likes a healthy Ray-Ray Armstrong and rookie Reuben Foster will be a daunting task.
Rotational “key cog” battle (Ray Ray Armstrong vs. Reuben Foster)
Armstrong and Foster are two of the better cover WILL linebackers, so look to see one or both of these two getting snaps in obvious passing situations.
On notice (Ray Ray Armstrong, Pita Taumoepenu)
Pita Taumoepenu is an intriguing rookie who is still developing and will likely find himself on the practice squad or, worst-case scenario, not on the roster at all. Armstrong may be on the outside looking in due to the numbers game on the roster and unfortunately, also by being linked to the old regime, not due to a lack of talent.
Middle linebacker (MIKE) “lead” battle (NaVorrow Bowman, Malcolm Smith, Reuben Foster)
NaVorrow Bowman is all but locked in as the heart and soul of the 49ers defense and as the starting middle linebacker. He’ll need a strong camp and preseason to show the new regime he can handle the workload and stay healthy. Both Smith and Foster possess the skill and ability to play MIKE as well, so there is both help and competition at the position. Needless to say, all eyes will be on Bowman and the battle at the MIKE position.
Rotational “key cog” battle (Malcolm Smith vs. Reuben Foster)
Foster will have to prove he’s 100% healthy before seeing the field, but if it’s a full go, he’ll potentially threaten both Bowman and Smith for snaps at the MIKE.
Last line of depth defense
Brock Coyle-was picked up by the 49ers to replace Nick Bellore as one of the team’s primary special teams players. Coyle, in three years with the Seattle Seahawks, had only five career starts since his primary role was special teams and is familiar with the 4-3 under scheme of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
The heated camp battles discussed in this article are just that, battles, and it’ll take the best from each player to win their perspective battle, and in some cases, win the battle to make the roster. Watching this defense work towards again being competitive and dominant in camp and during preseason will definitely make for great entertainment.
If you’ve never really been a fan of preseason games before, now would be a good time to tune in and change that. Every play for every player in every quarter is meaningful, and they could be the difference between being in a roster spot, and looking for one.
If this front seven can stay relatively healthy, play to potential, and the coaching staff truly maximizes the talents of the group using multiple personnel groupings pushing heavy player rotations, the naysayers, and non-believers such as Pro Football Focus will need to reassess their judgement of the 2017 49ers defensive front seven. But with the change in culture, morale, attitude, scheme and key additions to the defense, there’s plenty to look forward to and be excited about with training camp only days away. Go Niners!
Recent article alert: 49ers: Training camp battles. “Who Wants it More?” Beathard? Or Barkley?
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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 and Co-Author, Content Creator, Editor, Sequoia Sims.