The San Francisco 49ers are officially into the offseason following a 2018 season that did not meet expectations. The team entered with hopes of contending for a playoff appearance, but stumbled to a 4-12 record after losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a torn ACL in Week 3.
Expectations will climb again in 2019, but before we get into that, it’s time to take a look back at the season that was for the current roster. There will be turnover in the coming months, but let’s start the offseason with a stock report on the 49ers roster. We’ll go through each position group and offer stock up or stock down for each player, and then stock up or stock down for the position group as a whole. Today we move on to the linebackers.
Fred Warner: Stock way up
From third-round pick to leader of the defense in a season. Warner was stellar for the 49ers in his rookie debut, assuming the mantle left behind by the released Reuben Foster and injured Brock Coyle. Warner racked up a whopping 124 total tackles — 85 solo, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, six pass breakups and one forced fumble in 2018. His stock couldn’t be higher as he enters into the offseason as the unquestioned starter at the MIKE linebacker spot for the 49ers.
Malcolm Smith: Stock way down
The 49ers signed Smith to a five-year, $26.5 million contract in 2017. This season was essentially Smith’s debut with the 49ers after a torn pectoral muscle sidelined him for all of 2017. Despite the healthy return, Smith was unable to make an impact and was eventually replaced by second-year linebacker Elijah Lee. In 12 games and five starts, Smith managed 35 total tackles, three tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and a pass breakup. Smith is due $5.4 million in 2019 and if cut after June 1st, the 49ers will save $4 million in salary cap space. It seems unlikely that Smith would be retained at that price given his relegation to backup duties.
Elijah Lee: Stock up
Lee emerged as a surprisingly reliable cog in the 49ers’ young defense. He earned the nickname “Steady Eddy” from Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, who cited Lee’s ability to continually be in the right place at the right time. In five starts, Lee racked up an impressive 65 tackles, three tackles for loss, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. Lee not only supplanted Smith in the starting lineup in 2018, but made a case to be the starting favorite in 2019.
Brock Coyle: Stock down
Coyle landed on injured reserve after suffering a broken back during the 49ers’ Week 1 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings. Coyle’s compression fracture ended his 2018 after signing a three-year, $8.4 million contract during the offseason. The veteran linebacker was sidelined while Warner and Lee emerged as the 49ers’ starting duo for the majority of the season. Despite being signed through 2020, Coyle faces an uphill battle to earn a prominent role in 2019.
Mark Nzeocha: Stock up
Nzeocha was signed by the 49ers off the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad in 2017. He made is name on special teams throughout the season, re-signing with the 49ers in 2018 and earning a spot on the team’s 53-man roster. Nzeocha started three games this season, totaling 18 tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit and a sack. He’s currently slated for free agency but may be a return target for the 49ers as a contributor on special teams and backup linebacker.
Dekoda Watson: Stock down
Watson missed the first eight games of 2018 with a hamstring injury. He made a successful Week 9 debut against the Oakland Raiders, racking up four tackles, a tackle for loss, three quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks. He managed two tackles and a half-sack the following week against the New York Giants, but returned to injured reserved in Week 13 after suffering a calf injury against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13. Watson’s signed with the 49ers through 2019, but with a minimal contract and little impact, his spot on the roster is far from certain.
Pita Taumoepenu: Stock slightly up
Taumoepenu, a sixth-round pick in 2017, spent the majority of his first two season with the 49ers on the practice squad. After appearing in two games as a rookie, Taumoepenu was promoted to the active roster for the 49ers’ Week 14 matchup against the Broncos. He only managed three tackles in limited snaps in the team’s final four games. Taumoepenu will once again be competing for a spot on the roster in 2019.
Overall: Stock down
The expectations were sky-high for the pairing of Foster and Warner in 2019. Warner’s rookie season gives the 49ers reason for optimism in spite of Foster’s demise. Lee filled in admirably in replacement while there's a chance Smith may have played his final snaps with the 49ers. There’s still plenty of room for upgrade during the offseason and Warner should be considered the only safe starter at this point.