Last week, the San Francisco 49ers signed free-agent linebacker Korey Toomer to a one-year contract in an attempt to shore up the team’s linebacking corps. We analyze the Niners’ starting options at linebacker ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft.
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Toomer started 16 games at inside linebacker over the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers, and played in an additional 12 games over that span. Although originally drafted in 2012, Toomer’s stint with the Chargers was the linebacker’s first significant opportunity for playing time in the NFL.
Toomer is familiar with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s defensive scheme due to the linebacker’s experience with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley in Los Angeles, as well as Seattle, where Saleh also worked as a defensive assistant for the Seahawks.
A review of Toomer’s game film with the Chargers shows that he particularly excels against the run:
Here’s some game film on #49ers LB Korey Toomer @Korey_Toomer. Best suited at ILB – can play either MIKE or WILL. Good pursuit and excels at avoiding and shedding blocks. Particularly effective against the run. Easy upgrade over Coyle. Should compete for a starting role. #49wz pic.twitter.com/nOulWgQRPD
With the addition of Toomer, the 49ers now have an intriguing combination of players at the linebacker position, particularly if Reuben Foster is able to return to the team without an extended suspension.
Like Foster, Toomer has the ability to play both MIKE and WILL linebacker, so the two could be an interchangeable combo at the two stacked linebacker positions.
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When 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan signed linebacker Malcolm Smith to an expensive contract last offseason, they expected the former Super Bowl MVP to start at inside linebacker — until Smith missed the entire 2017 season due to injury.
With the injury to Smith and the subsequent release of former All Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, Lynch and Shanahan were forced to rely on special-teamer Brock Coyle to play inside linebacker for much of last season.
Coyle — who primarily played inside linebacker in college — certainly struggled throughout the 2017 season, but his effort and leadership recently earned him a three-year extension with the team. Both Coyle and Smith have NFL experience at SAM linebacker, so their versatility could allow them playing time even if they don’t win a starting spot at inside linebacker.
In 2017, linebacker Eli Harold played the vast majority of the team’s snaps at SAM linebacker, but is a candidate for replacement as his play on the field has yet to live up to his third-round draft stock. Fellow linebacker Dekoda Watson replaced Harold at times last season, but the special-teamer isn’t the long-term answer at the position.
The 49ers signed outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year deal this offseason, but the pass-rusher is more likely to play EDGE than SAM linebacker in the 49ers’ 4-3 scheme. Second-year player Pita Taumoepenu has also been mentioned as a candidate to convert to SAM linebacker, particularly if he gains strength over the offseason.
The two biggest wildcards for the 49ers are Foster’s status, and the potential addition of one or more linebackers in the upcoming draft. If Foster returns, he is a lock for one inside linebacker spot, and a first-day draft selection would start at that player’s respective position — otherwise, the linebacker positions are up for grabs.
Given their current roster, the best case for the 49ers is an inside-linebacker duo of Foster and Toomer on early downs, and either Toomer or Smith pairing with Foster on passing downs. This would allow Smith — who has experience at SAM — to play closer to the line of scrimmage on base downs in a rotation with Harold, or potentially Coyle.
A lengthy suspension — or worse — for Foster would throw a wrench into the Niners’ linebacker equation. The addition of an early round linebacker like Roquan Smith or Tremaine Edmunds would also change the San Francisco 49ers’ plans — but in a much more positive way.