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Eli Harold’s injury could open up the SAM competition this week

The 49ers might do some shuffling if Harold’s knee contusion keeps him out of practice and/or Saturday’s preseason game.

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The San Francisco 49ers have Eli Harold penciled in as their starting strong side (SAM) linebacker, but he also might miss this weekend’s game with a knee injury. Harold suffered the injury in the preseason opener against Dallas, and is listed as day-to-day. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said it is a knee contusion and should not be a big deal, but he will be a name to watch for when the 49ers open joint practices with the Houston Texans on Wednesday.

Regardless of his status, the SAM position has a competition underway for a reserve role. Entering training camp, Dekoda Watson and Pita Taumoepenu seemed like the primary competitors. However, since the start of camp, Watson has been transitioning more to a LEO role, and Mark Nzeocha has joined Taumoepenu in the SAM competition.

Here’s a look at their PFF grades for the preseason opener. The most notable non-grade stat saw Taumoepenu have three tackles on four snaps against the run, with all three resulting in a stop.

Eli Harold: 61.3 overall, 58.5 run defense, 65.1 in coverage, 55.8 pass rush
Pita Taumoepenu: 85.3 overall, 81.2 run def, 64.8 pass rush, no coverage grade
Mark Nzeocha: 50.6 overall, 58.2 run defense, 50.7 in coverage
Dekoda Watson: 73.6 overall, 60.1 run def, 72 pass rush

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh confirmed on Sunday that Watson was transitioning into more of a LEO role. In the meantime, he’s excited about the competition between Harold, Taumoepenu, and Nzeocha.

“It’s open, just like every other position on the team. They’re all working hard to get better every day. They all provide a unique quality that makes them all unique to the defense. There’s a level of consistency that the group needs to continue to show, but love all of them. Love Nzeocha, love Pita, love Eli.”

We’ll see all three getting work, but Taumoepenu is the most intriguing in my mind. Nzeocha is still young, but it’s hard to see him as anything more than a core special teamer who offers some linebacker depth. Taumoepenu has limited experience, and after effectively red-shirting last season, the team will be looking for signs of growth.

Harold’s absence with the knee contusion has opened up snaps for Taumoepenu and Nzeocha to rotate between the ones and twos. Saleh likes where Pita T is headed at this point.

“Pita’s doing a good job. He’s been growing. He’s come a long way. It’s like he learns something new every day and he’s been getting better every day. Him getting the reps with the ones, I know there’s ones, twos and threes and all that, but there’s a lot of guys getting reps with the ones. Some of our ones had reps with threes today. We don’t really look at it from that regard. We’re just trying to make sure guys get work. With [LB] Eli [Harold] having the knee contusion, you have two more SAMs so there’s a lot of reps to go between the two. He’s moving in the right direction. Again, he’s got a long way to go and it’s a big week for a lot of guys going into Houston. It’s getting close.”

I don’t want to see players hurt or slow to return, but in Harold’s absence, I also am looking forward to seeing what Taumoepenu can do with a bigger opportunity. I don’t think we see him supplant Harold on the depth chart at this point, but maybe he surprises us with more work with the ones.