The San Francisco 49ers drafted Utah linebacker Pita Taumoepenu in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Taumoepenu flashed as a pass rusher in college, and the 49ers saw enough to consider him worthy of a draft slot as developmental LEO/SAM prospect who needed to add NFL weight and strength before he could be realistically expected to see the field.
These expectations held fast throughout his rookie year, despite some reasonably impressive performances in preseason that saw him record 1.5 sacks. Though Taumoepenu made the 53-man roster, he was only selected for the game day roster on two occasions. He found himself third on the depth chart for the SAM position behind Eli Harold and Dekoda Watson.
Entering his second season, Taumoepenu has reportedly gained the ten pounds the 49ers wanted him to put on to achieve their desired 255-pound playing weight. This should help present him with a more realistic chance of climbing the depth chart at the SAM linebacker spot.
Experience: 1 accrued season
Weight: 255 pounds
Taumoepenu enters the second year of his four year rookie contract. He has a cap hit of $591,361. As we are post June 1st, if he is released, his dead money hit would be $36,364 this year, and $72,728 in 2019.
What to expect in 2018
Having hit 255 pounds, Taumoepenu has achieved the playing weight required to make him a viable edge setter in the 49ers’ eyes at the strong-side linebacker position — the crucial skill at that spot. He does however lack experience in such a role given he was primarily a pass rusher in college.
His performances in pre-draft testing suggest he has the movement skills to perform the coverage responsibilities sought after from the SAM spot, but again, he lacks experience performing such duties. A crucial determinant of his viability at the SAM spot will be how much he has learned and retained through his first year in the scheme. Taumoepenu has had just as much experience under Robert Saleh as Harold and Watson, and Harold is the only player who has taken significant game day snaps at the SAM spot — Taumoepenu should not be too behind the curve mentally. Now that he is thought to be physically capable of performing the edge setting duties that are a critical part of the role, will he actually be able to perform them?
Another area where Taumoepenu has an opportunity to make an impression is as a pass rusher, undoubtedly his stronger area coming out of college. This may favor him, as the 49ers seek to find more hybridity between their SAM and LEO spots, presumably to accommodate more players at other positions. Watson was used as a pass rusher more than Harold last year, and flashed a little, whilst Harold has been tabbed as an option this year. Nevertheless, Taumoepenu has perhaps his best chance of making the roster by being a superior pass rusher to both those players, as well as being a capable edge setter, offering a more varied package to the 49ers. Additionally, special teams ability could be important, an area Watson stands out in but also one in which Taumoepenu’s athleticism gives him a chance to shine in.
Odds of making the roster
Taumoepenu essentially finds himself competing with Harold and Watson, as well as LEOs Cassius Marsh and Jeremiah Attaochu for a roster spot. Furthermore, the performances of other players across the defense must be accounted for, given they may influence the extent of hybridity the 49ers look for between the SAM and LEO options on the roster. If they are keen to retain more players at other spots, chances are they will be looking for greater hybridity between the SAM/LEO roles, which may actually suit Taumoepenu.
He has impressive athletic traits and after a year in the scheme, should be fairly confident in his understanding of what is expected of him. Given the dearth of proven quality at either SAM or LEO, Taumoepenu has a good chance at making the roster, making him a strong bubble at this stage. He may offer the most versatile skillset of all the SAM/LEO types on the roster — something that could benefit him immensely