The San Francisco 49ers are making big changes on defense, switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base look. They’ll spend more time in their nickel and dime packages, but the change is notable. With it comes adjustments to how they will use their linebackers and defensive linemen, as well as the numbers involved.
On Monday, former Pro Bowl linebacker, and current NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest put together a ranking of the best linebacker groups in the NFL. NFL.com has had different former players at different positions offering their thoughts on the best groups at their former positions.
McGinest ranked the linebacker units for the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, and Carolina Panthers as the top three in the NFL. He then had a bit of a surprise, ranking the 49ers No. 4, just ahead of the Oakland Raiders. Here’s what he had to say about the 49ers unit:
New general manager John Lynch is building a stout defense in a short time, as reflected in the spirit of Lynch's Tweet on Monday about adding veteran pass rusher Elvis Dumervil: "Just added another stud to harass QBs." Dumervil joins a consistent Ahmad Brooks, former All-Pro NaVorro Bowman (who's returning from injury), experienced former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and Reuben Foster, one of the best rookies at the position. When Bowman and Patrick Willis played alongside one another, they were electric. If Foster -- who can be not just the best defensive rookie this season but the best first-year pro, period -- digests the defense, he could assume the Willis role in 2017.
The addition of Dumervil is not entirely a linebacker addition. Dumervil has said he is versatile and can play anywhere, but more than likely his primary role will be as a nickel defensive end. The 49ers could get creative in some other ways with him, but it’s hard to really factor him entirely into the linebacker depth chart.
Two of the big questions facing this unit are how Bowman looks coming back from his torn Achilles, and how quickly Foster is practicing once training camp starts. We’ve heard nothing but positive things about both situations, but obviously we have to wait and see what happens when camp gets going.
The selection of Foster is a big move for the future, but for the time being, Malcolm Smith, Ahmad Brooks, and NaVorro Bowman means it will be more of a veteran. unit. Smith remains a tough one to figure out with the addition of Foster. Smith does have experience in the Seahawks style defense, but the money he signed for seemed a bit high given what he brings to the table. Brooks remains an underrated linebacker, while Bowman’s return from his Achilles is the story to watch.
The depth remains a question mark, but there is intriguing potential in this group. Top five in the NFL? I’m not entirely sure at this point. The ideal unit would be Brooks, Bowman, and Foster, but for this first year, I’d see Foster getting worked into the mix along with Smith.