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Mark Nzeocha - A new approach at SAM

After trading Eli Harold, the 49ers have a very different type of player at the SAM linebacker position

When the news broke that the 49ers had traded Eli Harold, many fans’ reactions were probably quite similar. Whilst the frustration with Harold’s performances on the field was palpable, especially regarding his pass rushing, there was still a feeling that he offered the 49ers something on running downs, as a forceful edge setter who funneled plays into his better known and better respected colleagues. But now he was out, and replaced by who exactly? Two guys whose names seem impossible to pronounce with twenty-five regular season snaps between them. Mark Nzeocha had all twenty-five.

Not only were both those players inexperienced, but they were also quite different from one another. Pita Taumoepenu is a natural EDGE player, much like Harold, whilst Nzeocha played a sort of safety-linebacker hybrid position in college and has played as an off-ball linebacker in the NFL. In handing Nzeocha the first shot to win the job, the 49ers have a player with a more versatile skillset than Harold at the SAM spot, and in early action he appears quite capable of holding up as an edge setter whilst offering more in coverage — the area Harold struggled with most and was unsurprisingly targeted in by opposition sides.

Nzeocha’s versatility is indicative of the varied and difficult demands placed upon the 49ers’ SAM linebackers. These demands are not just confined to the challenges of having to possess the physical ability to consistently set a good edge whilst also being in possession of the movement skills to drop into coverage in the flats from a position on the line of scrimmage. The biggest demand appears to be the requirement that the SAM can contribute on all three defensive downs if need be, and on special teams. The interchangeability of the SAMs and LEOs has been overblown from a schematic standpoint — in reality it’s a roster construction issue more than anything else. They are the most similar body types and with the backgrounds of many of that group as EDGE players, there is a quite valid expectation that they can contribute as run stoppers (i.e. as SAM linebackers on run downs) and then pass rushers (as LEO types on passing downs). Now however, the 49ers’ starting SAM linebacker is more interchangeable with the off-ball linebacker positions, having played all three spots in preseason. Harold was moved on because he really only had value on base downs, his former backups have more varied skillsets and have value on all four downs if required, including special teams.

Whilst it is still early for Nzeocha, the signs thus far are positive. Beginning with his contribution as a run defender, he has shown himself to be effective as an edge setter as well as possessing the explosiveness to get into the backfield and make stops if necessary.

He has also shown the hustle to get back into plays that he gets pushed out of or makes harder for himself through bad habits/bad recognition (it’s a little unclear which it is).

However, that particular bad habit/his bad recognition has caused him to miss assignments too. If unblocked, he cannot afford to give running backs the edge by giving too much ground.

That being said, his run defense has, so far been effective. Equally, if not more so, has been his coverage. Unsurprisingly, there is some bad mixed in with the good, but his movement skills and fluidity are both tremendous positives at a position that offenses can go after in the passing game, especially when utilizing play action to get the SAM to engage or step up.

There was one bad play in coverage, but the likelihood of him being in this situation are slim from my charting of the 49ers’ defense from last year. He’s matched up man to man with a running back, and as is clear, gets thoroughly beaten for a first down. However, given Nzeocha is only likely to be utilized in base packages at the moment, and the 49ers play zone coverage almost exclusively out of those packages, this assignment should not happen too frequently.

The bottom line for Nzeocha is that whilst a little raw, he has shown plenty of promise in his time at SAM linebacker. In Saturday’s game, he made three defensive stops on just eleven plays, per PFF, offering a glimpse of a playmaking ability far beyond that shown by Eli Harold in his three years of play as a 49er. With a body type and background more similar to that of the Jaguars’ Myles Jack, Nzeocha is more similar to what DC Robert Saleh had in his final year in Jacksonville at the SAM position. This off-ball linebacker background seems to provide a desirable blend of edge setting ability, explosiveness and fluidity in coverage that gives a player a good chance of success as a SAM in the 49ers’ defense. Whilst we’ll have to wait until the regular reason rolls around before we can make any kind of lasting judgement on Nzeocha, he has thus far risen to the challenge.