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49ers bubble watch: Linebacker competition primarily for depth

The San Francisco 49ers have questions at almost every position while they work to figure out their 53-man roster. We’ll break down the bubble watch for each one. Today, we look at the linebackers.

The San Francisco 49ers wrapped up minicamp a week and a half ago, and return for training camp in just under five weeks. The roster appears to be just about set, so with that in mind, it is time to re-visit the bubble watch. The offseason workout program does not lock in most roster spots, and that is even more the case this season with a new coaching staff and front office.

Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a look at each position, and what the bubble watch looks like. As we’ve done for many years now, the bubble watch breaks down to lock, strong bubble, weak bubble, and longshot. For some positions, we'll have multiple players listed at strong bubble, even though not all are likely to make the roster. But the idea is that they both stand a good shot, even if it is just one of them. Additionally, this does not reflect whether or not a player will be traded. Trades can and probably will happen during training camp, but the positioning on this focuses on whether or not they’d be cut.

We move on to the linebacker position.

Lock: NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Malcolm Smith, Reuben Foster
Strong Bubble: Eli Harold, Dekoda Watson, Brock Coyle
Weak Bubble: Ray Ray Armstrong, Jimmie Gilbert, Donavin Newsom
Longshot: None

In spite of what one writer might think, NaVorro Bowman is not going to get cut. Sure, a trade is always a possibility, but I see no chance they cut him. But clearly some might disagree.

Ahmad Brooks is a guy I have listed as being on the bubble virtually every year since he last signed a contract extension. It has regularly felt like he is due to get released at some point. As he now enters the final year of his contract, I’m going to finally go in the other direction. Even though this year would make the most sense to potentially release him, I just don’t see it happening. As a football player, he remains perpetually underrated. Sure, he’s not a monster impact guy, but he is consistently one of the 49ers best linebackers. And given Bowman’s injuries two out of the past three years, I’d say Brooks has been the 49ers best linebacker over the last three years. And so, for the first time in at least three or four years, I will list Brooks as a lock (apologies to him if this is in fact a reverse jinx).

Malcolm Smith could very well end up losing his job sooner rather than later, but he will remain on the roster this year. Reuben Foster is likely going to eventually replace Smith, but I see more of a timeshare this year. If Foster is good to go for training camp and when Week 1 arrives, I see him being primarily a sub-package linebacker, and Smith being primarily a base defense linebacker.

As with most other positions, there are few true long-shots among this group. Jimmie Gilbert and Donavin Newsom enter camp as UDFAs, but the 49ers depth at linebacker leaves some opportunities open. Both will have to prove themselves extremely adept at special teams, but with questions at linebacker, they each have a significant opportunity.