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Saleh: Elijah Lee has done nothing but get better, will be in competition for 2019 starting spot

The 49ers have a decision to make next to Fred Warner.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers have had to rotate linebackers next to Fred Warner regularly this season, and Elijah Lee has emerged as the weak side starter the past two weeks. He will likely start the final two ahead of Malcolm Smith as he looks to build momentum heading into the offseason.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said on Thursday that Lee has done enough this season to work his way into competition at the WILL. He said Lee has been a steadying presence on defense, and is, “very smart, knows where to be, knows where to go.”

The 49ers brought Lee in for an official pre-draft visit prior to the 2017 NFL Draft. He was eventually selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the seventh round. They waived him at final roster cuts and signed him to their practice squad. Saleh said the 49ers pursued him for their own practice squad at that point. That did not work out, but two weeks later they signed him to their 53-man roster.

Saleh was asked what he liked about Lee heading into the draft last year.

“His demeanor, his speed, his versatility. The fact that he was raw and he hadn’t played a lot of linebacker, and the fact that he put on good tape as a linebacker. We knew that he had a lot to learn, but could. From the day he got here, from first day of practice all the way until now, he’s just done nothing but get better. He’s actually one of our better zone defenders in terms of drops and demeanor, feet in the ground with vision on the quarterback. He’s coming along. Excited to see. He hasn’t reached his ceiling yet. So, I’m excited to see where that goes.”

The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2018 season thinking they might have their MIKE and WILL linebacker positions figured out. Reuben Foster was going to open the season with a suspension, but the hope was that after that, he and Fred Warner would be the guys the 49ers could build the middle of their defense around the foreseeable future.

That has since changed and the 49ers now have to figure out what’s next at the WILL linebacker position. Warner has proven a fantastic selection and while he has to carry this over into year two, optimism is high for his future. But who will start at WILL in 2019?

Malcolm Smith was initially in that role during Foster’s absence. He moved over to strong side linebacker when Foster returned, but then returned to the weak side when Foster was hurt and then subsequently released. However, the past two weeks, Lee has gotten the start in his place.

The 49ers have bigger needs than linebacker to address in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, but linebacker is likely on the radar as an option later in the draft. They also could use some of their sizable cap space on a running mate for Fred Warner. C.J. Moseley and Preston Brown are pending free agents, although it is possible they might be bigger than what the 49ers want. But do we see the 49ers make a splurge in free agency on the position, or do they continue to develop Lee, see what they want to do with Smith, and maybe invest in a cost-controlled option in the draft?