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49ers roster breakdowns, 90-in-90: Eli Harold

Breaking down the 90 players on the 49ers offseason roster in 90 posts (over 90 or so days). Today we move on to edge player Eli Harold.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Each year, we run a series of post called "90-in-90" here at Niners Nation. The idea is that we'll take a look at every single player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few different ways. This is to help give everyone a basic understanding of a roster. Of course, this roster will change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not strictly one per day but you get the idea.

Eli Harold was picked in the third round of the 2015 draft, and was considered by a number of draft writers as a steal at this spot for the 49ers. His rookie report by Matt Miller of Bleacher Report described his strengths:

A pure speed-rusher, Eli Harold has first-class burst and follows it up well with length and hand usage as a pass-rusher. His surprising strength allows him to bull-rush and fight blockers, but he does the most damage with his first-step quickness and ability to shoot past blockers at the snap. His hips and feet work well in sync, and he's shown good balance, flexibility and overall light-footed agility. Harold plays the run well on the edge and can stack and shed with strong hands and good upper-body strength. He's best suited with his hand in the dirt, but he has the athleticism to transition to a stand-up rusher role.

What should excite 49ers fans most about this report is the focus on Harold’s burst and athleticism (4.60 40 yard dash with a 1.61s 10 yard split and 7.07s three cone), traits that he has demonstrated on occasion in the NFL. Additionally, he as also flashed the ability to be a capable edge setter at the NFL level. Nevertheless, he has struggled to really turn these attributes into NFL production, recording only 3 career sacks and 51 total tackles in 32 career games (14 starts).

There should certainly be some hope however that the transition into Robert Saleh’s aggressive one gapping scheme should bring out the best in Harold. The scheme should help to accentuate his athletic capabilities and help him to radically improve his poor overall 2016 PFF grade of 48.4 (with a pass rushing grade of 53.1, a run defense grade of 46.8 and a coverage grade of 69.1).

This is truly a make or break year for Harold, but he has the opportunity and the capabilities to radically change the perception of him amongst 49ers fans.

Basic info:

Height 6’3
Weight: 265 lbs
Age: 23
Experience: 2 accrued seasons

Cap status:

Going into the third year of his rookie deal, Harold has a cap hit of $823,343 and if cut, would result in a dead cap of $348,687. He will be eligible for a contract extension after the 2017 season.

Why he might improve in 2017

As previously mentioned, this truly is a make or break year for Harold but there are several ways in which he could get onto the field and demonstrate the athletic traits and genuine footballing abilities that got him drafted.

Currently, Harold appears to be the 49ers’ second choice strong-side (SAM) linebacker, behind veteran Ahmad Brooks. This role is essentially the same as he was asked to play in his first two seasons in the league, lining up outside the tackle and either setting the edge against the run, rushing the passer or dropping into zone coverage. Though he has not been impressive thus far, one would hope that the move to an aggressive one-gap scheme might help Harold play at a higher level than he has managed thus far in his career.

Furthermore, one can also hope that his third year in the league will be the first where he has felt truly comfortable, both in his body (having added a considerable amount of bulk between his first and second seasons and is apparently fully healed from a nagging toe injury) and in his abilities at the NFL level. Though this may be far fetched, a leap akin to that of the ChiefsDee Ford (who had 10 sacks in his third season after having only 5.5 in his first two seasons) would not be out of the question.

Such a leap would nevertheless be most realistic if Harold sees considerable use a specialist pass rusher. Even if he were to beat out Ahmad Brooks as the starting SAM linebacker, there is no guarantee that he would see any more than fifty percent of the 49ers’ defensive snaps as the SAM linebacker tends to be the player taken off the field in nickel packages. Harold could be used as a specialist pass rusher in addition to being the SAM linebacker, resulting in him seeing more snaps and being able to make the most of his athletic abilities and pass rushing traits. This is how the Falcons used Vic Beasley. Alternatively, he could be used in this way despite being the reserve SAM linebacker, or, most intriguingly to me, he could work his way into the rotation as the 49ers’ starting LEO pass rusher or simply be a specialist pass rusher who sees the field in obvious passing situations in the same way as the Jaguars used Dante Fowler. Harold certainly has the athletic attributes and improvements to his technique could see him fully harness these athletic abilities to be a major disruptor for the 49ers.

Why he might regress in 2017

Having to learn his third scheme in as many years could severely impact Harold, as with many of his draft contemporaries. Additionally, judging by his reported usage and Ahmad Brooks’ performances so far he finds himself comfortably out of the starting lineup which could see him open the season on the bench.

There is no guarantee that he can improve on his first two seasons in the league which were largely disappointing and if his performances do not improve, no one will be upset to see him play out the season on the bench or even see him cut if he is not noticeably better than his competition. Strong performances in camp and in preseason from players such as Pita Taumoepenu, Aaron Lynch, Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, Tank Carradine and the aforementioned Brooks could see Harold fail to make the roster.

Odds of making the roster

Right now these look decent, especially as Harold has the ability to compete for both the SAM linebacker spot and the LEO defensive end spot. This versatility, added to his experience and athleticism should give him an early lead on much of his competition. Nevertheless, given he was picked by the previous regime and has struggled in years one and two, he certainly has a lot to prove to the new coaching staff to secure his roster spot.