49ers need LB sidekicks for this player… Read more
Once the bedrock of a dominant defense, the linebacker corps fell on hard times last season, playing a key factor in the franchise’s worst-ever defensive showing.The new coaching staff is installing a new scheme, intended to stack the line of scrimmage with eight men, with outside linebackers taking on new looks.
NaVorro Bowman is trying to come back from his second career-threatening leg injury since January 2014. On track in rehab, Bowman is ecstatic to adapt to a new style in which he’s responsible for one gap instead of two for the first time in his career.
It’s conceivable the 49ers draft a middle linebacker early, if not to complement Bowman then to possibly replace him down the road or if another injury strikes.
The addition of Malcolm Smith and the re-signing of Ray-Ray Armstrong provides experience. But this unit was thinned out so badly by injuries late last season that safeties had to try filling roles. Inexcusably, the 49ers did not address their linebacker depth last year, amplifying the sudden departures in 2015 of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, to say nothing of Aldon Smith.
Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold and Dekoda Watson are seen as options at the strong-side linebacker spot, as well as the pass-rushing end spot dubbed “Leo,” which is where converted linebackers Aaron Lynch and Tank Carradine likely will be on the defensive line.
The Top Five
1. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt (6-3, 234) — Playmaker who had 16.5 tackles for loss for the Commodores. Considered athletic enough to defend running backs and tight ends in pass coverage. Always around the ball and a threat to force turnovers. Lack of lower body power can be an issue disengaging from blocks.
2. Haason Reddick, Temple (6-1, 237) — An end in college, Reddick will convert to linebacker as an NFL player. Combine numbers (4.52 in the 40-yard dash, 36.5-inch vertical) attest to athleticism. Former walk-on who battled injuries in high school but worked hard to prove himself. Had an arrest with teammate Dion Dawkins outside a Philadelphia nightclub but avoided charges with diversionary program.
3. Jarrad Davis, Florida (6-2, 238) — Missed three games and part of a fourth with leg injuries, yet coaches thought enough of him to name Davis second-team All-SEC. As junior, had 13.5 tackles for loss and 98 stops. Was named Florida’s top special teams player in 2014. Physical with tight ends defending the pass.
4. Tyus Bowser, Houston (6-3, 247) — A boom or bust pick, Bowser spent his first two seasons playing basketball and football. Began to show up as a junior after giving up basketball, but lost part of his senior year after breaking his orbital bone in a fight with a teammate. Bowser is highly skilled but very inconsistent.
5. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State (6-2, 240) — Critics say he can’t stand his ground or play with proper leverage in the NFL, but tremendously productive — was the Butkus Award winner in high school and a finalist in college. Beats guards to the spot and considered instinctive in terms of knowing which lane a runner will take.
Keep an eye on
Reuben Foster, Alabama (6-0, 229) — Became a much better player after losing 20 pounds before his final season. Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker. Led Alabama in tackles and had 13 for losses — a big total for an inside linebacker. An issue with a hospital worker at the combine and a reported diluted urine sample — treated like a positive drug test — put his first-round status in jeopardy.
Others: Duke Riley, LSU (6-0, 232), Ryan Anderson, Alabama (6-2, 253), Jayon Brown, UCLA (6-2, 231), Hardy Nickerson, Illinois (6-0, 232), Alex Anzalone, Florida (6-3, 241).
Depth chart: NaVorro Bowman (6-0, 242), Malcolm Smith (6-0, 225), Ray-Ray Armstrong (6-3, 220), Ahmad Brooks (6-3, 259), Dekoda Watson (6-2, 245), Eli Harold (6-3, 265), Brock Coyle (6-1, 245), Jayson DiManche (6-1, 235), Shayne Skov (6-3, 247), Carl Bradford (6-1, 248), Wynton McManis (6-1, 225)
Last five drafted: Eli Harold (third round, Virginia, 2015), Chris Borland (third round, Wisconsin, 2014), Aaron Lynch (fifth round, South Florida, 2014), Nick Moody (sixth round, Florida State, 2013), Corey Lemonier (third round, Virginia, 2013). (Note: Harold and Lynch were outside linebackers who will be defensive ends in new scheme; Lemonier got released last year).