The 49ers are one of the rare teams that have very few question marks across their 22 starters on both sides of the ball. One of those positions is the strong-side linebacker.
Azeez Al-Shaair departed for Tennessee after Ran Carthon poached him in his first season as general manager. The 49ers addressed the position with two draft picks in this draft while still rostering Marcelino McCrary-Ball and Oren Burks.
Burks is working through an injury in his second season as a 49er, which opens the door for the younger linebackers.
Steve Wilks was asked about the position and the players vying for the spot in the 49ers’ base defense:
With LB Oren Burks out for a couple of weeks here with his knee, how are you viewing the strong-side spot?
“I think it always gives guys opportunities to excel with reps, to get better. We mentioned Jalen, also opportunity with [LB] Marcelino [McCrary-Ball], and [LB] Dee Winters, who I thought flashed in the game as well. Still growing, still learning. So, with O.B. being out, it just gives other guys opportunities to step up and make plays.”
Jalen Graham and Dee Winters had fine showings in the preseason opener. Both have garnered praise in training camp as well.
Wilks continued to praise Graham when asked about him:
Jalen Graham has been impressive. His pursuit ability gets through the trash and gets to the ball. Is that just natural? Is that good coaching at Purdue? He’s a seventh-round pick. He’s obviously doing well.
“I think that’s good coaching by [linebackers coach] Johnny Holland. That’s what I think. That was a joke [laugh]. But yeah, Johnny does a great job of coaching him, but what you see with Jalen is what we saw on tape. A guy that plays in the slot and plays out in space and he can maneuver when he’s chasing things down. So that’s his skillset. What I’m impressed with is when he’s in the core, tackle to tackle, you’re starting to see a little bit of that physicality. Of course, it’s going to take him some time to gain the weight that he probably needs to maintain it throughout the year. But, I’m very impressed that he doesn’t shy away from contact.”
While the league and their offenses don’t allow teams to be in their “base defense,” the third linebacker spit is still intriguing for the 49ers.