The San Francisco 49ers drafted Eli Harold in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, with an eye on developing him into their next great pass rushing 3-4 outside linebacker.
Things haven’t worked out that way so far, with Harold working under three different defensive coordinators in his first three seasons and having to adapt his weight to the differing demands placed on him.
Now, for the first time in his NFL career, Harold enters training camp with the same defensive coordinator that he ended the previous season with. That consistency should serve him well, as he acclimatizes further to the SAM role in the 49ers’ 4-3 scheme, where he is primarily a run stopper and flats coverage player, as well as seeing more reps as a possible nickel edge rusher. Going into a contract year, Harold faces a make or break season as he bids to remain a 49er for the long run.
Experience: 3 accrued seasons
Weight: 255 pounds
Harold is entering the final year of his four year rookie contract. He is due a base salary of $1,892,000, with a $15,000 workout bonus. His cap hit is $2,081,343, with a dead money hit of $174,343 if he were to be cut. That will increase to $189,343 if he is cut after the offseason workout program and having earned his workout bonus.
Why he might improve in 2018
As previously mentioned, for the first time in his career Harold is experiencing some welcome continuity with his defensive coordinator. Having already had a year learning how to play the SAM position, the 49ers seem keen to try to get a little more from Harold, hoping to unlock the pass rushing potential the 49ers saw in 2015. Without the pressure of having to change his body and get used to carrying more or less weight, Harold can finally completely dedicate himself to honing his craft.
A greater contribution as a pass rusher would represent a welcome improvement, especially given the 49ers’ dearth of proven pass rushers. Less glamorously, but arguably more importantly, continued development in his primary roles as an edge setter and flats cover player are undoubtedly attainable with greater experience in the scheme and better physical health. Furthermore, he should have recovered from the sprained wrists that affected him last season; being fully healthy should also help him utilize his full repertoire of skills more effectively.
Why he might regress in 2018
Given Harold is both injury-free and more experienced in the scheme, regression on the field is unlikely. It would certainly be a disappointment if Harold again fails to contribute as a pass rusher. Sadly, this would not be a regression, given the standards Harold has set as a pass rusher so far in his career.
Perhaps the main way Harold could “regress” is if he is beaten out by second year pro Pita Taumoepenu. After what was essentially a red-shirt year, Taumoepenu enters the 49ers offseason program at the weight the 49ers want, offering the same athletic traits Harold offers. Given the 49ers clearly felt Taumoepenu needed to work on his body, their keeping him on the active roster rather than risk him going through waivers speaks volumes about their belief in his potential (and that other teams resultantly may have claimed him themselves). A good camp could see him take Harold’s job, or at least start eating into his snaps.
Odds of making the roster
Given the dearth of proven pass rushers and options at SAM linebacker, and the 49ers’ faith in him, Harold should make the regular season roster. However, this scarcity of rushers could work both ways. The dearth of pass rushers (and relatively high numbers of talented individuals at other positions) may well mean that the SAM competition is heavily influenced by the competitors’ ability to contribute as pass rushers as well. Harold has to perform well in camp, or risk the 49ers banking on the likes of Taumoepenu, Cassius Marsh, Jeremiah Attaochu or special team stud Dekoda Watson to play a hybrid SAM/LEO role to facilitate more players being retained at other spots.