As a whole the San Francisco 49ers have a lot of questions surrounding their linebacker group going into next season. Having never seen Malcolm Smith on the field of play in any meaningful action is just one such example. Then there is the whole Reuben Foster debacle, which may only result in a few games lost but has to make us wonder if we are truly set at middle linebacker going forward. I can appreciate the gamble on the kid but without a lot of veteran leadership in our locker room it may be tough to keep him straight. Lastly, Eli Harold is nothing to get excited about either at the SAM position so we are in the market for any and all linebacker spots this off-season. That being said this is how I see the top 5 prospects lining up before the combine :
Top 5 Linebackers - Excludes Edge Rushers (coming soon)
Tremaine Edmunds — Virginia Tech
6’5” - 250 lbs - Approx 40 time - 4.67
Plenty of fans were getting excited about Tremaine long before the recent episode with Foster. Edmunds for lack of better description does fit the “freak” label for a linebacker. Considering his size and weight he still flies around the field making plays in all sorts of ways. I’d be shocked if he didn’t test off the charts at the combine through all the drills. Some analysts view him as the next generation of linebackers in a league that wants speed in as many spots as possible. He certainly checks all the boxes, it’s just a question of where you want to play him. Pencil him in at MLB or cut him free and let him get to the quarterback possibly from the SAM position. Tough to say as of now but it’s always a good problem to have when you have a guy who can be used in multiple ways.
Draft Projection - Top 15 Lock
Roquan Smith — Georgia
6’1” - 225 lbs - Approx 40 time - 4.60
The other big draft crush among the 49ers fan base is the Butkus Award Winner out of UGA. Smith put up some very solid film as he lead Georgia to a strong showing this past college football season. A perfect fit as a MIKE linebacker Roquan could give us one heck of a dynamic duo should we slide Foster over to WILL or on a lesser note have Malcolm Smith fill that role. With a size very similar to Foster he is certainly no freak like Edmunds but could hold things down in the middle. Should it come down to the two of them come draft day as our top options, the choice could boil down to Edmunds’ upside to get to the quarterback.
Round Projection - 1st Round Lock
Rashaan Evans — Alabama
6’3” - 230 lbs - Approx 40 time - 4.62
Evans was the next man up for the Tide after Foster left for the NFL last year. A heck of an athletic specimen, Evans projects as a perfect fit for a 3-4 defense looking for an ILB. However, his ability to rush also could see him viewed as a 4-3 WILL. His size would likely prevent any chance of him being able to play SAM in Robert Saleh’s defense. One criticism of his would be his ability to diagnose plays as quickly as some of the linebackers that came before him at Alabama. Progress was shown throughout his senior year but this knock on him has him out of the same conversation as top 15 candidates like Edmunds and Smith.
Round Projection - Late 1st - Early 2nd
Darius Leonard — South Carolina State
6’2” - 229 lbs - Approx 40 time - 4.70
Unless you followed the Senior Bowl this year you probably have no clue who Darius Leonard is. Certainly an under the radar name compared to the other three linebackers mentioned thus far, Leonard is a guy who can really do himself a favor at the combine. Even prior to the Senior Bowl there was buzz about Leonard being all over the field making plays for his team. His 113 tackles last season seem to back up that idea. Sure he wasn’t playing against top level competition but we have seen smaller schools produce high level talent as of late and this may be the next gem coming up. Leonard reminds me a bit of Zach Cunningham coming out of Vanderbilt last year. Although not perfectly polished he has displayed the instincts teams covet and could really take things up a notch with the right coaching and strength training in the NFL. I think his value could be very enticing if we are looking to make a move for a starter without paying a super high premium.
Round Projection - Last 2nd - Early 3rd
Josey Jewell — Iowa
6’2” - 235 lbs - Approx 40 time - 4.71
Josey Jewell simply is not getting enough respect as of this article. The Iowa linebacker was a machine last year but in pre-draft grading is being torn down because of what they project to be short arms and stiffness in his frame. That may very well hold up to be true but if you watch this kid play on the field you can see that he is a winner. An easy comparison would be our former 49er Chris Borland. Neither of them were given high grades because of their physical stature but as we saw Borland made a heck of an impact during his short stay. Personally I don’t see any scenario where Jewell isn’t a successful NFL linebacker for years to come. In fact he is the type of guy who will make teams eat crow for ever passing on him. He may even shock us all at the NFL Combine and post numbers better than anticipated. The guy is an NFL player and I’m a fan of a draft where we land him as well as his Hawkeyes teammate Joshua Jackson.
Round Projection - 3rd round
Micah Kiser — Virginia
6’0” - 236 lbs
I’ve seen him ranked all over the place prior to the combine but he’s outside of my top 5. A tackle machine for the Cavaliers the past few years Kiser could be a useful run stopper day one but his game does have deficiencies that will require a heck of a showing at the combine to reach the early rounds come draft night. On the right team he could be a value pick if he can clean up his tackler and get better in coverage.