Linebacker Elijah Lee enters his first offseason with the San Francisco 49ers. The team signed him off the Minnesota Vikings practice squad following Week 1. Reuben Foster suffered an ankle injury in the season opener, and went on to miss five straight games. Lee appeared in 14 games his rookie season, playing 18 defensive snaps and 275 special teams snaps.
The 49ers actually had some interest in Lee in the pre-draft process leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft. He was one of their 30 official pre-draft visits, and Kyle Shanahan said the personnel department had kept an eye on Lee and other players they did not draft or sign after the draft.
As a tall, mobile off-ball linebacker, he fit the profile the 49ers seem keen on for their WILL and MIKE linebackers. As it was, Lee was picked by the Vikings in the seventh round of the draft, but the 49ers were able to sign him off the Vikings practice squad in September 2017, and he developed into a useful special teams contributor and back up at both linebacker spots. He now heads into training camp with the additional competition for a roster spot provided by a healthy Malcolm Smith, rookie Fred Warner, and veterans Korey Toomer and Brock Coyle. For now though he appears to be reasonably well regarded by the coaches.
Experience: 1 accrued season
Lee is in the last year of the two year contract he signed last year, but he will become an exclusive rights free agent rather than an unrestricted or restricted free agent. He has a cap hit of $555,000 but no dead cap hit.
Why he might improve in 2018
If Reuben Foster is unavailable at the start of the season, Lee has a great chance to enter the season as the third or fourth off-ball linebacker on the depth chart. He took some first team reps at linebacker in Foster’s absence and in college showed the short of coverage skills and ability to sift through traffic to make his tackles to suggest he can line up at either linebacker spot and perform at an acceptable level. Should Lee earn himself a spot on the roster, he will also have to continue his special teams contribution, on a special teams unit that was one of the better ones in the NFL last season.
Why he might regress in 2018
Regression is most likely to be simply a result of competition that forces Lee off the roster or onto the practice squad, which is certainly a possibility given the effective additions of Smith and Warner into the rotation. Alternatively additional exposure to live game reps might reveal that Lee is out of his depth outside of special teams, which might also be considered a regression given our lack of knowledge about his abilities and the hopes that he might prove another useful option within the rotation.
Odds of making the roster
Lee looks like he is a strong bubble at the moment, given his prominence in the rotation when Foster was absent suggesting that he is currently sitting around fourth on the linebacker depth chart. His athletic traits lend themselves to good special teams abilities which is crucial at that spot in the depth chart, and he fits the physical profile the 49ers are looking for in off-ball linebackers.