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49ers linebackers: Better, worse, or same in 2017?

A position by position look at the San Francisco 49ers’ roster, and whether the team is better, worse, or the same as the 2016 roster. Other positions: QB | RBWR | TEOT | OG | C | LB | CB | S

The San Francisco 49ers face a lot of questions surrounding their roster in 2017, with the new front office and coaching staff bringing numerous changes. It is going to take some time to figure out where this team stands. The team was incredibly active in free agency, and followed that with plenty of work in the 2017 NFL Draft.

With that in mind, I thought we would take a look at each position, compare it to various points last year, and consider whether the unit is better, worse, or the same compared to last year. The table includes the current group of players, and then a list of players on the 90-man roster for the first preseason game, the players on the Week 1 53-man roster, and the players on the Week 17 53-man roster. The idea is to compare this year with last year across the board. The roster changes from August to December, so I’m including three separate markers just to provide an overall view of the position last year.

We move on to the linebacker position.

Linebacker changes, 2016-to-2017

Current 2016 preseason 2016 - Week 1 2016 - Week 17
Current 2016 preseason 2016 - Week 1 2016 - Week 17
NaVorro Bowman NaVorro Bowman NaVorro Bowman Ahmad Brooks
Ahmad Brooks Ray-Ray Armstrong Ray-Ray Armstrong Aaron Lynch
Malcolm Smith Ahmad Brooks Gerald Hodges Gerald Hodges
Reuben Foster Aaron Lynch Ahmad Brooks Michael Wilhoite
Eli Harold Michael Wilhoite Aaron Lynch Eli Harold
Brock Coyle Eli Harold Nick Bellore Tank Carradine
Dekoda Watson Gerald Hodges Tank Carradine Wynton McManis
Ray Ray Armstrong Nick Bellore Marcus Rush (PS) Carl Bradford
Donavin Newsom Corey Lemonier Shayne Skov (PS) Brandon Chubb (PS)
Jimmie Gilbert Shayne Skov N/A Curtis Grant (PS)
N/A Marcus Rush N/A NaVorro Bowman (IR)
N/A Jason Fanaika N/A Ray-Ray Armstrong (IR)
N/A N/A N/A Nick Bellore (IR)
N/A N/A N/A Shayne Skov (IR)

The San Francisco 49ers are transitioning to a new defense in 2017 under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. The switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 means fewer traditional linebackers in the base defense. At the same time, the 49ers will spend more time in the sub-packages that already have fewer linebackers on the field.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to sort this out, because guys like Aaron Lynch and Tank Carradine were listed as linebackers last year. They did play end in the nickel, but this year they are viewed exclusively as hand in the dirt defensive ends.

The big changes to the linebacker corps are the additions of Malcolm Smith and Reuben Foster. NaVorro Bowman is the front-runner at middle linebacker, while Ahmad Brooks will play on the strong side. Where it gets interesting is how they end up working in Smith and Foster. That applies to the base defense, but also to the nickel.

In the base defense, the team likely will play Smith, Bowman, and Brooks at the three linebacker positions. Foster is a long-term option at either middle linebacker or weak side linebacker, but right out of the gate, Smith and Bowman will likely be out there in base. When the 49ers move to the nickel, they will play with two linebackers, and if healthy, I see Foster playing next to Bowman.

Last year, the team had some interesting depth entering the season. Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong were starting at ILB, with Michael Wilhoite and Gerald Hodges providing depth. By the middle of the season, Bowman and Armstrong were both on IR, and Wilhoite, Hodges, and special teamer Nick Bellore were rotating at ILB. Bellore was on IR by the end of the season, and it was just a mess.

The team could have a shot at some real depth at linebacker. Eli Harold will back up Brooks at one outside linebacker spot, Armstrong and Foster will back up Bowman and Smith at ILB and other OLB spot, and Brock Coyle and Dekoda Watson will hopefully be able to focus exclusively on special teams. If Coyle and/or Watson are playing regular defensive snaps this season, something has gone very, very wrong.


Are the 49ers better, worse, or the same at LB in 2017 as compared to 2016?

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