Some sad things happened to the San Francisco 49ers linebacking group. Fan-favorite NaVorro Bowman departed from the team after feeling some distrust with the new coaching staff, and that opened the door for Reuben Foster to fully embrace the role as “the guy” in the linebacker corps. While this may have been the right call, Bowman’s departure was the end of an era, as he was the heart and soul of the 49ers following the Jim Harbaugh departure.
But Foster couldn’t do it alone, and without Foster, the 49ers were a different team. Brock Coyle wasn’t horrible, but he’s further made his case for being a backup. On the outside, Eli Harold took over as the SAM linebacker and not much was heard—which for that position could be taken as a good thing depending on who you ask.
In 2018, 49ers linebackers are much different. Bowman and Harold are gone. In are rookie Fred Warner and a returning Malcolm Smith. The latter of which was out all of 2017 with a pectoral tear. This group is a large question mark, especially with the loss of Foster for the first two games of the season.
2017 LB depth chart: NaVorro Bowman, Reuben Foster, Eli Harold, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Dekoda Watson, Brock Coyle
2018 LB depth chart: Malcolm Smith, Mark Nzeocha, Fred Warner, Elijah Lee, Brock Coyle, Reuben Foster*
*Foster is suspended the first two games of the season
Besides the retention of Coyle and Foster’s return, the 49ers linebacking group has changed significantly. Dekoda Watson could fill in at SAM in an emergency, but he appears to be primarily a LEO at this point. We don’t know what Malcolm Smith can add to this group, particularly given his extensive injury history, and we don’t know how Fred Warner will pan out in his rookie season. Bowman’s release stung, but it was also the right time given his play in Robert Saleh’s 4-3 defense. There is a lot of optimism with the changes to this group, but also a lot of question marks as well.
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Are the 49ers better, worse or the same at linebacker compared to the start of 2017?
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