The San Francisco 49ers shook things up this past week in the linebacker depth chart, installing Eli Harold as the starting SAM linebacker against the Denver Broncos. Ahmad Brooks had handled first team reps prior to last Thursday. Harold got first team reps that day and into the game.
Following the game, head coach Kyle Shanahan said the two are competing at the SAM role, and they alternated games with the first team. We saw something similar with rotating second team running backs.
Brooks has been perpetually on the verge of losing his job since he signed his current contract. However, he has stuck around thus far. One big difference between Brooks and Harold is salary. Brooks is due $4.45 million in base salary and $750,000 in roster bonus money. Harold is in the third year of his rookie contract and is due $720,000 in base salary.
The 49ers have a ton of cap space, so salary really shouldn’t be a big driver in roster decisions. Shanahan seems to agree on that to some extent. On Sunday, he was asked how much salary impacts his decision. He said not at all because he wants to make the right decision based on performance.
“For me personally not at all. I don’t even know what their salaries are. I try not to even look at that because I don’t want, I want to make the right decision. I don’t like anything to skew me on that type of stuff. So, I try to go off what I see at practice. You want to know who’s got the most upside and things like that. Who’s going to be better throughout the year if given the opportunity. But, you also want to know who when it’s all said and done who’s going to affect your win-loss record the most. Those are the things that I look at personally. You don’t always want to think who’s the best guy for Week 1. Who’s the best guy for the 2017 49ers. I try to simplify my thoughts in that way. That’s why I really don’t find out about salaries until I’ve already made a decision.”
Harold missed some time earlier this month with a concussion, but seems to be getting back in gear. He lost some weight, and has said he is back down to a more comfortable playing weight. He weighed 247 at the 2015 NFL Combine, but was asked to get up over 260, near 270 with the 49ers. That is where Trent Baalke liked his outside linebackers. The move to a 4-3 has him slimming down a bit.
Shanahan offered some thoughts on how Harold has come along since returning from his concussion.
“It took Eli a little bit to get going. He was hurt in OTAs, he got off to a good start in training camp but quickly got a concussion. Took him a while when he was in the protocol. And he’s been back here for, I want to say a little bit over a week now. Eli plays physical. He sets the edge really well for us as a SAM linebacker. You know, there’s not just competition going on at SAM linebacker, it’s also as a rush nickel player. We’re trying to figure out who can be our best SAM linebacker in base personnel and then which one of these guys is the best at putting his hand in the dirt and rushing the quarterback when we get to third down. Eli does both of them. Ahmad does both of them. Guys like [LB] Dekoda [Watson] can do it to. We’ve got some guys there that, you know, we’ve had two game in we’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen a lot at practice and I’m glad we’ve got two more games to evaluate it.”
The beat writers are putting together 53-man roster projections this week, and several are projecting Brooks off the roster and Harold playing in his place. Could we actually see that happen? Or will Brooks make it into the final year of his contract as a starting linebacker?