The San Francisco 49ers lost linebacker Malcolm Smith to a torn pectoral muscle on Saturday, and that opens up all sorts of questions and opportunities on the starting defense. The team has their first preseason game of the year this coming Friday, and it’s safe to say there will be plenty of focus on the linebackers.
NaVorro Bowman has been handling starting middle (MIKE) linebacker duties, with Ahmad Brooks holding down the strong side (SAM) linebacker role. Smith was going to be the weak side (WILL) linebacker. In training camp, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Brock Coyle had been handling second-team MIKE and WILL duties, with Reuben Foster spending much of the first week working as the third team WILL.
The past few practices, we have seen Foster bump up the depth chart. Coyle is dealing with a rib injury, and Bowman got a veteran’s day off earlier in the week. That has led to Foster getting some first team MIKE duties and second team WILL duties. When Armstrong and Foster were on the field at the same time, Armstrong was usually the MIKE and Foster was usually the WILL.
The question now is how the linebacker duties will split up between Bowman, Armstrong, Foster, and maybe even Coyle. The team will need two of them in the base defense, and one of them in their nickel and dime packages. Foster has the most raw talent, Armstrong is strong in coverage, and Bowman is the best all-around in terms of talent coupled with experience. Coyle has seemed destined for primarily a special teams role, but his knowledge of the defense benefits him.
Some have suggested a rotation of Armstrong and Foster, but even with a rotation, could we see one of them push Bowman for nickel and/or dime duties? There is a huge opportunity with Smith going down. Foster has been making big plays all throughout training camp, and he was drafted to be a long-term starter. Will we see that at the start of the season, or will we see some platooning?