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Do the 49ers need a linebacker in free agency?

We review the 49ers’ linebacker position from 2017. Do they need to upgrade in free agency?

Before the start of the NFL free agency period, we’re going to look at various positions on the San Francisco 49ers’ roster to determine a few things. The first is whether or not the position improved from 2016 to 2017. The second is to see if free agency is a viable option to improve the position — if it’s even needed.

Season in review

Brock Coyle is an interesting player because I don’t think anybody expected him to get significant playing time in 2018, and he winded up being fairly decent. He was a complete unknown for me, and while most are of the opinion the 49ers could stand to upgrade the position, Coyle was at the very least an average player for much of the year.

Malcolm Smith was supposed to start in that spot, or Reuben Foster was and Smith was supposed to start where Foster played. Either way, Coyle wasn’t expected to do much of anything, but he played 646 defensive snaps, or 57.42 percent, more than any linebacker. Foster wasn’t far behind despite missing multiple games with an injury, with 553 defensive snaps (49.16 percent).

Harold plays the SAM linebacker position, and according to 49ers coaches, he plays it well. His job is to get in the way of blockers, and while I think the 49ers can do better, they feel like he’s a good scheme fit.

Foster is, obviously, the big name here. He was incredible when he was on the field, and he’d be locking down the position for the next ten years if he didn’t come with massive off-the-field concerns, including a domestic abuse incident, which as far as I’m concerned, is a non-starter. I won’t ever root for that kind of person.

But his future has yet to be determined, and free agency could hit before we know what’s going on with him. And before Foster, people were talking about needing an upgrade at another linebacker position. I think it’s safe to say the position needs to be addressed both in free agency and the NFL Draft.

Here’s a look at the way the position changed from 2016 to 2017:

2016 Week 17: Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch, Gerald Hodges, Michael Wilhoite, Eli Harold, Tank Carradine, Wynton McManis, Carl Bradford, Brandon Chubb (PS), Curtis Grant (PS), NaVorro Bowman (IR), Ray-Ray Armstrong (IR), Nick Bellore (IR), Shayne Skov (IR)
2017 Week 1: NaVorro Bowman, Reuben Foster, Eli Harold, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Dekoda Watson, Brock Coyle
Current: Reuben Foster, Eli Harold, Brock Coyle, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Dekoda Watson, Elijah Lee, Mark Nzeocha

The market for linebackers

We’re going to take a deeper look at the various positions and free agents available in a separate series. For now, here’s a quick and dirty list of the top linebackers set to hit the open market.

NaVorro Bowman, Oakland Raiders
Nigel Bradham, Philadelphia Eagles
Anthony Hitchens, Dallas Cowboys
Tahir Whitehead, Detroit Lions
Junior Galette, Washington
Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars
Avery Williamson, Tennessee Titans
Demario Davis, New York Jets
Jon Bostic, Indianapolis Colts
Gerald Hodges, New Orleans Saints
Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
Todd Davis, Denver Broncos
Kevin Minter, Cincinnati Bengals
Brian Cushing, Houston Texans
Karlos Dansby, Arizona Cardinals
Brock Coyle, San Francisco 49ers
Nick Bellore, Detroit Lions