Edge pass rusher was considered to be one of the strongest positions in the 2015 draft class, and in the third round Trent Baalke selected one that many draftniks felt had first-round ability. Eli Harold, junior defensive end/outside linebacker prospect from Virginia, joins a talented group of players on the edge of San Francisco’s front seven. And if Baalke’s history of identifying quality linebackers is any indication, the 49ers’ pass rush is about to receive a boost.
Harold played limited snaps in his freshman season at Virginia, but took over as a starter beginning in his sophomore season with the Cavaliers. His production as a starter was decent, though he never produced that one eye-popping season on the stat sheet that many will look for. Harold’s 15.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss as a starter were split almost equally between his sophomore and junior seasons.
Paired with a standout combine performance — Harold isn’t exactly Vic Beasley, but he’s one of the best athletes in this class. His pSPARQ score (explained here) put him in the 84th percentile of NFL outside linebackers — that production was good enough to give Harold the fourth-best projection from Football Outsiders’ SackSEER system for predicting the success of edge rushers. Having a great combine and ranking well in a statistical projection system aren’t golden tickets to NFL stardom. But they are tools worth considering, and those tools suggest that Harold has the athletcism needed to succeed as an NFL edge rusher.
More importantly, those tools matched up with the athleticism Harold showed on the field while at Virginia. So let’s go to our most important tool, the tape, and take a look at what Harold can bring to the 49ers’ defense.
Where He Wins
Harold’s ability to rush the passer will get him on the field in a rotational capacity from day one. Unlike Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch — who primarily rely on converting speed to power to go through an offensive lineman as their most effective means of pressuring the quarterback — Harold wins with speed off the edge.
Harold is aligned in the right defensive end position — a spot he played exclusively in college — toward the top of the frame. He possesses a quick first step that allows him to get on top of the tackle in a hurry. When he’s ready to turn the corner, Harold’s go-to move is to chop down on the tackle’s hands while dipping his inside shoulder to bend around the blocker. His execution on this play is top-notch, and it allows him to pick up the sack. More often than not, if Harold was getting pressure on the passer, this is how he was getting it done. Sometimes, he would set his "chop-and-dip" move with a fake step inside, as he did on this play against Pittsburgh…
…and other times, when his quick first step and timing off the snap worked in concert with each other, he could explode by the tackle with pure speed like on this play against Miami:
While some variation of the above three plays was the dominant pass-rushing move in Harold’s arsenal, he did appear to add some complimentary moves into the mix from time to time as the 2014 season went on.
After the snap, you can see Louisville’s left tackle worried about getting outside to cut off Harold’s speed rush. Harold takes advantage by exploding into the chest of the tackle — as opposed to trying to widen around him — and knocking him off balance with a strong punch before redirecting inside to get after the quarterback.
Later on in that game, Harold flashed the other secondary move he most frequently went to.
If the tackle started to get really anxious about getting outside to prevent the speed rush, Harold would occasionally start outside before taking a quick inside step and accelerating through the B-gap, as he does here. His quickness often prevented the guard from getting over to help in time, allowing him to get a free run at the quarterback.
Harold didn’t show off these secondary moves as often as you would have liked, but because their first move is typically good enough to get the job done at the college level, few pass rushers are polished in this area entering the NFL. He flashed them frequently enough to make me believe he has the tools to develop this area and become a more complete pass rusher.
The other thing that really stuck out to me when watching Harold’s tape was his effort level. Rarely, if ever, did I feel like he was taking plays off. And even when he would get beat early in the play, his persistence and constant pursuit would often pay off in the form of a quarterback hurry or tackle on the opposite sideline. There was no better example than this play against Miami:
Harold gets eaten up and pushed back by the left tackle on the outside zone play, allowing the running back to get right by for what looks like is going to be a big play for the Hurricanes’ offense. But after finally managing to disengage from the tackle’s block, Harold immediately starts after the ballcarrier, eventually catching up and knocking the ball loose. What started as a poor play that saw him get owned by the larger blocker ended with a turnover for his defense thanks to his persistent effort.
Where He Needs To Improve
Even though it ended on a positive note, you could’ve probably guessed from the previous GIF that Harold needs to get stronger in the run game. This most frequently showed up in his difficulty disengaging from blocks.
Harold gets singled up with the left guard on this play. Even though he doesn’t give up any ground, the guard has no trouble hooking Harold to open up the rushing lane through the B-gap. Harold is never really able to shed the block, even after the ballcarrier has gone by him.
Here’s another example, this time matched up with a tight end in the Louisville game:
There’s probably a little holding going on here, but that type of stuff regularly goes uncalled on Sundays. And that doesn’t take away from the larger point — despite having the arm length to keep blockers off him, Harold doesn’t have the strength to consistently shed blocks in the running game, even when matched up against a tight end. Similar examples popped up all over the place — hell, he was taken to the ground by that same Louisville tight end later in that quarter.
Every so often, Harold’s lack of strength will show up when rushing the passer — particularly when trying to go inside — and he’ll end up on the ground.
On this play against UCLA, Harold is slanting inside to try and create space for the blitzer on the outside. When the tackle gets his hands on him, he’s able to push Harold to the ground with relatively little effort, preventing him from being able to affect the throw in any way. Virginia would have Harold slanting inside like that on a decent number of their pressure packages, and he was routinely neutralized whenever they asked him to do it.
The Bottom Line
In the short term, Harold comes into an ideal situation that should allow him to play to his strengths early while he develops the rest of his game. He’ll be able to contribute in sub-packages as an outside speed rusher immediately, and his presence on the roster gives the 49ers some flexibility in how they want to deploy their pass rushers. Harold could simply be used on a rotational basis, allowing Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch to take some snaps off without seeing the pass rush take a major dive. More interestingly, the 49ers could choose to put all three on the field in obviously passing situations, kicking either Smith or Lynch to the inside.
In the long term, the 49ers get a player with first-round upside and athleticism with the potential to develop into a very good starter. Though outside linebacker didn’t appear to be a major area of concern for 2015, we saw this offseason how quickly things can change and it wouldn’t take much for that sort of turnover to occur at Harold’s position.
Smith is entering the option year of his rookie deal, and San Francisco has already put themselves in a position where they can easily cut ties with him should any more off-the-field concerns arise. It would be a huge surprise if Ahmad Brooks is on the roster in 2016 at his current cap figure. Depending on how he performs this season, Brooks could be asked to take a pay cut or become a cap casualty a year from now. Corey Lemonier played himself off the field in his second season and will need to take a step forward in 2015 if he hopes to be around for the final year of his rookie contract.
Ultimately, even if none of those things come to fruition, it’s never a bad idea to add pass rushers, especially from a draft class as well regarded as this year’s. Making life miserable in the pocket for the quarterback is perhaps the most direct path to a good pass defense, and San Francisco’s collective pass rush has been very average even when Smith was on the field full time.
Baalke added three high-variance defenders with each of San Francisco’s first three picks. All three have the size and athleticism to develop into very effective players for the 49ers’ defense. But based on what I’ve seen from each of those players, Harold will have the biggest impact in year one.