San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters rookie Reuben Foster is slated as the team’s starting WILL linebacker. But what other options are there?
Following the San Francisco 49ers’ training camp practice on August 15, head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters rookie first-round draftee Reuben Foster is slated as the team’s starting weakside (WILL) linebacker moving forward.
Although Shanahan did indicate Foster’s placement there isn’t guaranteed, if someone outperforms him.
Foster, of course, jumped to this spot on the depth chart almost immediately after veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith suffered a season-ending pectoral injury earlier in camp. Smith probably would have been the starter, at least at the beginning of the year. But now it’s Foster’s turn.
In all reality, there aren’t exactly too many other options than Foster.
This is due to a couple of reasons. Despite slipping in Round 1 of the 2017 NFL Draft, due to medical and off-the-field concerns, Foster was widely viewed as a top-10 talent. Those players are almost always considered plug-and-play starters their first years at the pro level.
But the bigger reason, since the Niners won’t — and shouldn’t — guarantee rookies anything, is San Francisco doesn’t have too many other choices here.
Foster was already listed as the starting WILL linebacker on the team’s first unofficial depth chart, viewed here:
This is, just like Shanahan’s words, no guarantee Foster holds onto this spot. But let’s take a look at the other choices the Niners may have.
Armstrong, who also suffered a season-ending pectoral injury early in 2016, certainly saw his chances of making the cut increase when Smith went down. The 28-year-old Armstrong has made strides in camp, as pointed out by Niners Wire’s Rob Lowder and Niners Nation’s Jennifer Lee Chan:
Armstrong wins in his coverage abilities — he’s a converted safety — so it wouldn’t be a shock to see him get reps in obvious passing downs.
But as a starter, Foster still seems to be the better option.
San Francisco 49ers
Third on the depth chart behind Armstrong is undrafted free-agent linebacker Austin Calitro.
The former Villanova product found his way to Santa Clara following the Smith injury, signing on August 7. Like Foster, Calitro has excellent football instincts but lacks the overall athleticism to regularly make plays on this side of the ball.
In all likelihood, Calitro’s best chances to hang around with the Niners would be on the practice squad — a reserve option already familiar with the defensive scheme. Making the 53-man roster is a long shot for Calitro.
Moving Other 49ers Around
The 49ers, of course, don’t have to stick solely to their unofficial depth chart.
It’s feasible MIKE or SAM linebackers, like Brock Coyle, Dekoda Watson and/or Eli Harold bump over to the WILL position. Coyle and Watson are more special teams contributors, though, and it’s not likely San Francisco looks to either to be a primary playmaking linebacker — the WILL specialty.
Harold, entering his third year at the NFL level, hasn’t made much a name for himself either outside of being a serviceable depth option. Yet his moderate 69.7 Pro Football Focus coverage grade suggests he’s better suited to stay at SAM.
So while the 49ers have a decent number of on-roster options to compete with Foster, all signs are pointing to the rookie being the top choice.
And in all reality, that’s perfectly fine. He’s earned it.