Critical Changes the 49ers Need to Make at Linebacker

Oct 11, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham (13) carries the ball as San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (53) chases at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O
Oct 11, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham (13) carries the ball as San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (53) chases at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O /

The 49ers are in need of a revamp at linebacker, here we break down the changes they should make to strengthen at the position.

For much of the century, the linebacker position has been the strength of the 49ers. However, NaVorro Bowman’s injury, the mass exodus of the 2015 offseason and the poor play of the young players San Francisco has drafted at the position have turned it into a spot in need of addressing in the draft.

Bowman’s return from the torn ACL and MCL he suffered in the NFC Championship game two years ago was the story of a dismal 2015 season for the 49ers but, although he was named a first-team All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl, it was clear the injury has had an impact on his physical abilities, particularly in coverage.

Michael Wilhoite was similarly ineffective in coverage before his 2015 season was ended by an injury suffered in the Week 12 win over the Chicago Bears, and the play at the position picked up considerably when the younger, more athletic Gerald Hodges – who the Niners traded for in October – came in for him, racking up 45 tackles in less than five full games.

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At outside linebacker Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks continue to perform to a decent standard, both ending 2015 with 6.5 sacks and playing the run well, but the 49ers had significant trouble rushing the passer, with Corey Lemonier and Eli Harold combining for a grand total of zero sacks, although the latter’s form did improve towards the end of the campaign.

The 49ers need help rushing the passer, have had to deal with off-the-field troubles with the 32-year-old Brooks, who was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery last August, and cannot realistically be fully sure if Hodges is the solution next to Bowman.

Those issues make linebacker a position worth adding to in a 2016 draft where San Francisco has 12 picks and, according to Kyle McLorg of Bay Area Sports Guy, the Niners are prepared to make moves to make it an area of strength once more.

On the inside it could become a debate of size versus athleticism. Baalke is a self-professed proponent of a ‘big people beat up little people’ philosophy in his recruitment of personnel but will have to be tempted by the all-round skill set of UCLA’s Myles Jack, who was worked out by San Francisco linebackers coach Jason Tarver at his pro day.

At 6’1″ and 245 pounds, Jack – whose 2015 season was ended by a torn anterior meniscus in September – lacks ideal size for the position but is incredibly athletic, excelling in pursuit with outstanding closing speed and read-and-react quickness to fly to the football. Able to play on the inside and on the edge as a pass rusher and stay with receivers in coverage, Jack could well be off the board by the time Niners are on the clock.

If that is the case the 49ers can wait and address one of their many other needs with pick No. 7 and use a later-round choice on an inside backer, or reach and trade back for the two other players at the position expected to go in the first – Darron Lee and Reggie Ragland.

Ohio State’s Lee is of a similar mould to Jack athletically and comes with the same concern over his 6’1″ and 232-pound frame but put up better numbers in terms of tackles for loss and sack production.

A moveable chess piece who can get to the quarterback from the inside and the edge, Lee put up 27 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in two seasons. By contrast Jack – having played a game more in college – finished at UCLA with just 15 tackles for loss and one sack.

However, his size sees Lee often find it tough to get off blocks and as a result the 49ers may be more inclined to look towards Alabama linebacker Ragland, a versatile 6’2″ and 252-pound thumper who is athletic enough to be trusted in coverage but comes into the draft with tape that shows him struggling to make full use of his build when taking on linemen and getting caught up in the junk when defending the run.

Sep 5, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland (19) in game action against the Wisconsin Badgers at AT&T Stadium. Alabama won 35-17. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 5, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland (19) in game action against the Wisconsin Badgers at AT&T Stadium. Alabama won 35-17. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers could justify taking either Lee or Ragland at No. 7 and would likely have little issue finding suitors for the pick if Baalke wants to add to his haul of selections and still choose either of that pair later in the first.

But more pressing than the 49ers’ need on the inside is the lack of pass rush and, in an a far from stellar year for edge rushers, San Francisco should strike early to pick up one of the top ones in the class.

Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence is arguably the best pure pass rusher in the draft but, although he is an ideal fit at outside linebacker, it would be a substantial risk by Baalke to take a player with a past history of drug problems.

Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd have no such off-field issues and have production that matches their impressive tape. Each posted 12.5 sacks in 2015 and should be available at No. 7.

Lawson is the slightly superior prospect and excelled playing as a defensive end and outside backer. He combines speed, size and power superbly and creates bend off the edge as a pass rusher, displaying the capability to beat opposing linemen in a number of ways.

Indeed, Lawson can with speed but also has the strong hands to drive blockers back and is agile enough to pick his way through traffic.

The 49ers could potentially trade back a few spots and still pick up Lawson or Dodd and give themselves more options later in the draft with which to look at inside backer and other needs.

Should the 49ers select a pass rusher first up then the possibility of taking Jaylon Smith as a long-term option on the inside will have to be discussed.

After a stellar career with Notre Dame, Smith was considered arguably a better prospect than Jack but suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee in the Fiesta Bowl and his since seen his draft stock plunge.

Per NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, NFL teams are expecting Smith to miss all of his rookie year with the injury. It is a sad story for a player who boasts the athleticism to chase sideline-to-sideline and perform to a high level in coverage as well as the versatility to play any of the linebacker positions and defensive end and the power to win physical battles with blockers.

A likely top-10 pick before the injury, the question is how far Smith falls down the draft. Baalke’s tendency to select injured players and have them sit out their rookie year has been criticized but, if Smith is still there in the third round, the Niners should not hesitate to take him.

Ohio State’s Joshua Perry is a decent option who should be available in the third and has the size Baalke looks for at 6’4″ and 254 pounds, bringing a physical presence to the middle of the field. Perry has impressed in pre-draft testing, coming in at No. 3 among off-line-of-scrimmage linebackers in Zach Whitman’s SPARQ rankings, which measure player athleticism.

Perry has a number of issues, such as a tendency to get caught up in physical battles with blockers and an apparent lack of effort on some plays, that are likely to affect his draft status.

Meanwhile LSU’s Deion Jones is a talented but inexperienced prospect who figures to be worth a look in the mid rounds having shown he has what it takes to perform against the run and in coverage.

Although there are no guarantees over Hodges as a long-term option at inside linebacker, he is a more than serviceable stop-gap next to Bowman and his presence makes adding an edge rusher more of a priority.

If the 49ers are serious about upgrading at linebacker, then they must address the requirement for an edge rusher to play on the outside by either staying put at No. 7 or trading back to take one of Lawson, Dodd or even Spence, which would allow them to cut the ineffective Lemonier and put pressure on Brooks and Harold to produce with increased competition for places.

Should the Niners pick up an edge rusher first they can then either take the gamble on Smith or a player like Perry or Jones who they can develop behind Bowman and Hodges while also giving San Francisco the depth it needs at linebacker to rebuild a once dominant defense.

Next: What Can 49ers Fans Expect From Jim O’Neil’s Defense Part 1: The Base Defense