The San Francisco 49ers has various needs across the board on both sides of the ball. One of the more glaring needs for the 49ers is the inside linebacker position. Since the retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, the 49ers have yet to really address the position. They have plugged in Michael Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges, and Ray-Ray Armstrong, however I feel as though they have yet to find a long term answer. With NaVorro Bowman coming back from a torn left Achilles tendon, the same left leg which he sustained a torn ACL-MCL in the 2014 NFC title game against the Seahawks, it is even more crucial for the 49ers to find an inside linebacker to line up alongside Bowman.
The 2017 NFL Draft class doesn't offer a deep pool of prospects at inside linebacker, however it does offer some intriguing prospects who I feel can be a great addition to the 49ers defense. Now, one thing to keep in mind is that until presumptive head coach Kyle Shanahan selects his defensive coordinator we wont know exactly if the 49ers will have a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. When creating these rankings, I kept in mind who might fit in well with the current 49ers personnel on defense, and more specifically with Bowman.
Until free agency plays its course, it’s hard to determine if and where the 49ers may invest a draft selection or two at the position. The following is a short-list of inside linebackers who are expected to be free agents this offseason: Rolando McClain (Cowboys, Age 27), Zach Brown (Bills, Age 27), Keenan Robinson (Giants, Age 27), Lawerence Timmons (Steelers, Age 30), Perry Riley (Raiders, Age 28). As for the top free agents, Jamie Collins already got his payday from the Browns, and it isn't expected that Dont’a Hightower will reach free agency, but stranger things have happened. If he happens to hit the open market at the age of 26, the 49ers should be very interested in his services, and would have the cap room to sign him.
Below is a list of the top five inside linebackers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Is there a prospect at the position you were thinking of that didn't make this list? Please share in the comments below!
Reuben Foster, Alabama: 6’1, 228 lbs. 40 Time: 4.76
2016 Stats: 115 Tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 5 Sacks, 2 Passes Broken Up.
Without a doubt, the number one inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft. Foster plays a physical and relentless brand of football. An athletic linebacker, who has tremendous speed running a straight line, as well as going from sideline-to-sideline. Foster hits with purpose, punishing the ball handler. Foster has strong instincts, and thanks to his explosive movement, along with a fluid motion in the hips and long strides, it allows Foster to get to the ball almost immediately. Often times, Foster was disruptive in the opponents backfield. Foster is at his best against the run. At many points this season ,Foster took shots downhill and in the gaps. He was a leader and captain of the number one defense in the country, that led to him becoming a first-team All-American and All-SEC pick, and earned SEC Championship Game MVP honors. In addition, Foster was the recipient of the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Foster brings toughness, and is able to set the tone from early on in the game. Foster will need to improve his pass coverage skills, and often relies on his athleticism and speed. In the past, Foster had a bad habit of dropping his head while tackling, and while he has improved that as a starter this season, he will need to continue to resist from dropping his head at the next level. There is also a concern about durability, as Foster has dealt with injuries in the past including concussions. Overall, Foster is a tremendous prospect, who can contribute from day one, and if he can remain healthy, I expect Foster to have a successful NFL career. As for the San Francisco 49ers, Foster would be an incredible addition, and would most likely line up in the WILL linebacker spot next to NaVorro Bowman. With a major need at linebacker, Foster would make a great first round pick for the 49ers, though I would first like to see them trade back if they go this route.
Draft Projection: 1st Round (Top 15 Pick)
Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt: 6’4”, 230 lbs. 40 Time: 4.75
2016 Stats: 125 Tackles, 16.5 for a loss, 2 Forced Fumbles, 3 Battered Passes
Zach Cunningham was one of the best run defenders in the nation this season thanks to his quick instincts and explosive straight line speed. Cunningham consistently showed the ability to shed blocks and make tackles all season long. In addition, he was ranked amongst the best pass coverage linebackers in the country. His blend of run and pass stopping abilities may give him the opportunity to be a three-down starter at then next level. Cunningham has continued to add weight to his frame, with has not had a negative impact on his agility and elite speed. He was named a first-team All-American. Cunningham tackles well in space, and is able to stay with and beat backs at the edge, running east-to-west. He can change direction in an instant, and moves well through his hips, staying light on his feet. Cunningham will need to continue his tackling technique as he often tackled above the pad level. Too many times, Cunningham relies on his upper body to tackle an opponent to the ground. There is far more to like about Cunningham, and his thanks to his huge upside and talent, Cunningham is poised to be a late day one selection or early day two selection. He has the skill set to translate to a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.
Draft Projection: 1st-2nd Round
Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State: 6’2”, 240 lbs. 40 Time: 4.70
2016 Stats: 102 Tackles, 5 for a loss, 2 Forced Fumbles, 4 Passes Broken Up
McMillan was the leading tackler in the Buckeye’s defense this season. He was a cog up the middle this season, showing his ability against the run. He shines the brightest inside the tackle box. McMillan shows great anticipation for where the ball is going, and is able to position himself in passing lanes. Many times this season, he was able to defend well against tight ends. McMillan hits with power and authority, and wraps up the opposition well, bringing them to the ground relentlessly. In today’s pass-happy NFL, having the ability to run from side-to-sideline is a major plus. This is not a strength of McMillan who is a far better runner going from north-to-south. He lacks the quick change of direction against more fluid east-to-west runners. While he defended tight ends well this season, he will need to continue to improve in man coverage. Lastly, it is still to be determined what position he may play at the next level. In a 4-3 I can see him lining up at the SAM position, and in a 3-4 I can see him lining up at the MIKE position. At the moment McMillan is a day two selection.
Draft Projection: 2nd-3rd Round
Jarrad Davis, ILB - Florida: 6’2”, 238 lbs. 40 Time: 4.74
2016 Stats: 60 Tackles, 2 Sacks, 4 Passes Broken Up.
Has the physical tools and athleticism to be a three down back at the next level. He is able to read the play quickly and get himself in position to make a play at the ball. Thanks to his explosive speed, he is able to wreak havoc in the backfield to blowup plays and fly from sideline-to-sideline defending well against perimeter runners. I really like Davis’s straight-line speed, especially in blitz packages as he is able to chase and get to the quarterback quickly. This was especially true in the passing game. Being able to blitz and rush the passer is something that many NFL teams should be intrigued by. At times Davis does get himself out of position. There were times where he was up too high against the blocker, and will need to continue to develop better use of his hands to beat blockers. Another major concern, and perhaps the reason he isn't ranked higher on this list is his injury history. Durability will be monitored as Davis has dealt with lower body injuries including a torn meniscus during his sophomore season and an ankle sprain his senior season. If the 49ers can look past his injury history, he can be an intriguing day two selection.
Draft Projection: 2nd-3rd Round
Kendell Beckwith, ILB - LSU: 6’2” 252 lbs. 40 Time: 4.75 (#52)
2016 Stats: 91 Tackles, 6 for a loss, 1 sack, 4 Passes broken up
A downhill runner, who uses his hands to evade blockers, blow up plays in the backfield, and get to the quarterback. Has the ability to read the quarterback’s eyes and anticipate where the play is going to happen. He is at his best inside the tackle box. His instincts and football IQ are above average, and seems to play with control and confidence. In addition, he has tremendous leadership and character traits, and plays with emotion. His speed and motor are just average, and at times he is caught playing too tall. He leaves a little to be desired working in space, and at the moment he doesn't not match up well against the perimeter east-to-west backs. The big concern is that he tore his ACL back in November and it is yet to be determined when he will be able to return to action. However, he is expected to make a full recovery, and has the potential to be a physical three down starter at the next level. Whether the 49ers stay in a 3-4 or switch to a 4-3, Beckwith has experience in both schemes. Because of his ACL injury teams may have various draft grades on him. Before the injury Beckwith was no worse than a 2nd round pick. For now, I will give him a late day two, more likely, early day three grade.
Draft Projection: 3rd-4th Round
ILB prospects outside of the top 5 to keep an eye on:
Ben Boulware, Clemson: 6’0”, 240 lbs. 40 Time: 4.76
Draft Projection: 4th Round
Anthony Walker Jr., ILB - Northwestern: 6’1”, 235 lbs. 40 Time: 4.69
Draft Projection: 4th Round
Connor Harris, ILB - Lindenwood: 5’11”, 241 lbs
Draft Projection: 4th-5th Round