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49ers post-free agency position review: Inside linebacker

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The 49ers have had great inside linebackers for so long, but has that time passed?

The San Francisco 49ers are going to run a 4-3 defense in 2017, and while I don’t recall if this has been explicitly stated by the team, it’s a foregone conclusion with Robert Saleh serving as the new defensive coordinator. I have mixed feelings about the move, only because the 49ers have been served so well over the years with strong dual-inside linebacker play.

But injuries and retirements have ultimately weakened the position to the point that career backups and players signed off the street have been starting at one of the two spots. Maybe a defense that includes Aaron Lynch at defensive end, Ahmad Brooks at one of the outside spots and a competition at the other spot with NaVorro Bowman in the middle will actually be good.

Oh yes, Bowman — a fantastic player who looked fantastic coming back from his injury but who is still something of a health-related question mark. I’m nervous about Bowman, incredibly nervous. But if he’s healthy, he’ll be fantastic, and the 49ers won’t have to worry about the position.

Guys like Gerald Hodges, Nick Bellore and Michael Wilhoite primarily took snaps inside for the 49ers. Ray-Ray Armstrong played some outside, but can also be counted among inside guys (and has been, at least), along with Shayne Skov and Carl Bradford. Neither of them were much of a factor, and all the guys listed are primarily special teamers, outside of Wilhoite and Hodges.

Free agency

Hodges remains unsigned after hitting the open market. Bellore became a free agent and was signed by the Detroit Lions. That left some spots open on the 49ers’ roster. They quickly made a big move by signing Malcolm Smith, formerly of the Oakland Raiders.

Smith is listed as an inside linebacker, but more on his potential future later. The 49ers also signed Brock Coyle, who can play inside or outside but is primarily a special teamer. Just a couple days ago, the 49ers also brought in Jayson DiManche, an inside linebacker through and through who will also primarily play on special teams, most likely.

Going forward

With Bowman set to start, Smith would be the primary backup at inside linebacker, though his skillset is such that he will likely also compete for a spot at weak-side linebacker. Smith actually gives me a lot of comfort at the position.

DiManche and Coyle will be special teams guys, though Coyle will also be a backup on the outside along with free agent signee Dekoda Watson. Ultimately, the inside depth chart is probably something like Bowman, Skov, Dimanche and Coyle, not counting Smith, again.

It’s an odd look, to be sure. I think there is room in there for a rookie, hopefully one taken in the later rounds. They need to develop somebody to be more than a special teams player and I’m not sure if that guy exists at inside linebacker on the roster right now.

It’s worth noting that it’s always hard to determine whether some guys will play inside or outside in the NFL.

NFL Draft

Reuben Foster, Alabama: Foster was sent home from the scouting combine after an argument with a hospital staffer. We can say a lot of things about being reactionary and making mistakes but there are so many good players who didn’t get thrown out of the combine. So for me, that’s enough to pass. But he’s a great prospect, a tackling machine who will go in the first round.

Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt: If he’s around in the second round, and if the team has any doubt about Bowman’s health, Cunningham is a great prospect. He’s a complete player, a ridiculous run defender and a tackling machine. He can also engage offensive linemen without issue. I’m a fan.

T.J. Watt, Wisconsin: He came out early, and it was the right decision. He may be better suited to outside linebacker, but if he stays inside he has the range and instincts to be one of the best in the league.

Jarrad Davis, Florida: He’s got great instincts, takes good angles and hits very hard. But there have occasionally been effort and injury issues over the years, which is a significant concern.

Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State: He’s the best athlete among the players listed here and was once considered a potential first-round pick. He can tackle all over the field, has great range, can rush the passer ... but he has some issues in pass coverage, and that has caused him to reportedly fall down some boards. He’d be a ridiculous value in the fourth round.

Elijah Lee, Kansas State: A great pass defender, Lee is pretty complete coming out of Kansas State. He had 110 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions in 2016.

Richie Brown, Mississippi State: He needed to show some ability in coverage this past season and I think he did that. He’s not particularly fast, which is his biggest issue, but he’s a sure-tackler.

Jordan Herdman, Simon Fraser: A late-round prospect with decent size and strength to go with average speed, he can make tackles all over the field.

Connor Harris, Lindenwood: Another tackling machine playing in the minor leagues. He is great against the run, and looked good in coverage, which is a rarity among the late.-round prospects at this point.