49ers’ 2018 ‘Who Is?’ series: Linebacker Elijah Lee

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 18: Linebacker Elijah Lee #56 of the Minnesota Vikings in action against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on August 18, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 18: Linebacker Elijah Lee #56 of the Minnesota Vikings in action against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on August 18, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) /

Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players looks at a 2017 free-agent pickup, linebacker Elijah Lee, and his potential impact in 2018.

Early in 2017, the San Francisco 49ers had to find some backup options for then-rookie linebacker Reuben Foster after the first-round NFL Draft pick suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 1 of the regular season.

One of the moves was to grab fellow then-rookie linebacker Elijah Lee off the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad.

The Vikings selected the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Lee in Round 7 of last year’s draft. Prior to that, Lee had a productive college tenure at Kansas State, earning a reputation as a tackling machine and someone regularly around the ball:

Elijah Lee College Defense & Fumbles Table
*2014Kansas StateBig 12FRLB9154194.54.500101
*2015Kansas StateBig 12SOLB136614807.55.0320.7121
*2016Kansas StateBig 12JRLB1372381106.51.5231.5311
CareerKansas State1535620918.511.0551.0533

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 6/9/2018.

He was primarily effective his junior year before declaring for the draft, registering 110 total tackles and coming away with two interceptions as well.

The Niners still have question marks with Foster heading into 2018. While Foster’s legal issues are all but resolved, the NFL could still levy a suspension on the talented linebacker this season.

After seeing action in 14 games with the 49ers last year, primarily on special teams, does this mean Lee’s chances of sticking around on the 53-man roster are improved?

Let’s dive a bit deeper.

Why Elijah Lee Improves in 2018

Lee has some good speed, having ran a 4.72 40-yard time at his pro day back in 2017. This means he should be able to keep up with the majority of tight ends and running backs at the NFL level.

A willing tackler, Lee has little trouble handling coverage assignments in space. And while he’s not exactly a pass-rushing threat, Lee is good enough to take on blockers behind the line of scrimmage and open up opportunities for fellow edge rushers if need be.

But Lee made his biggest marks on special teams last year. He nearly had a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars last year (the play was ruled an incomplete pass) and also flashed good coverage-unit abilities as well.

Why He Regresses

Despite his tackling prowess, Lee can be deceived by more agile ball carriers, as he’s prone to taking improper angles and, at times, being too aggressive in his pursuit.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

On top of that, he can struggle with bigger, stronger blockers. So unless he’s being asked to make a tackle in open space, one shouldn’t expect too much out of his defensive efforts.

Many of his special teams moments were “splash” plays. If those start to disappear, Lee would probably be looked at as little more than a fringe player.

Chances of Making the 49ers’ 53-Man Roster in 2018

Much of this hinges on Foster’s ongoing situation with the league. While a six-game suspension seems unlikely now, there’s the chance Foster starts off by missing two games or so. We’ll see on that.

Yet there’s some added competition heading into 2018 too. In addition to returning veterans Brock Coyle, Malcolm Smith, Dekoda Watson, as well as free-agent pickup Korey Toomer and 2018 draftee Fred Warner, the Niners have a pretty deep crop of options at the position. Plus, players like Coyle, Watson and Toomer can double on special teams too.

Lee will have to outperform at least a few of these players to have a good shot. The fact the 49ers worked him into a considerable amount of games last season bodes well.

But things are a bit tougher now with the added competition.

Next: 5 NFL teams that will surprise in 2018

Right now, Lee is likely on the weak bubble. A strong camp would help increase his chances, perhaps pushing out someone like Coyle or Toomer. But that’s a reach.