49ers’ 2018 ‘Who Is?’ series: Linebacker Dekoda Watson

SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 22: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys avoids the rush of Dekoda Watson #97 of the San Francisco 49ers during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 22: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys avoids the rush of Dekoda Watson #97 of the San Francisco 49ers during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

Niner Noise’s 2018 “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players takes a look at special teams ace and backup linebacker Dekoda Watson, projecting his possible role this upcoming season if he makes the 53-man roster.

Veteran linebacker Dekoda Watson was one of the many sweeping moves San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch made after taking over the role in early 2017.

Signed to a three-year deal, worth up to $4.975 million, Watson immediately made an impact on special teams, appearing in 14 games and registering three tackles and an assist in the process.

Not ever known for being a regular starter over his eight-year career, the 30-year-old Watson will likely be gunning again for a similar role with San Francisco in 2018.

Dekoda Watson Defense & Fumbles Table
4 yr4 yrTAM6061424713.065169
1 yr1 yrDAL10100
1 yr1 yrDEN16010001.0511
1 yr1 yrJAX91951
1 yr1 yrNWE300
1 yr1 yrSFO140311

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/12/2018.

Yet the 49ers linebacker crop is going to be pretty crowded this year, particularly with a healthy return of Malcolm Smith and the 2018 drafting of BYU’s Fred Warner.

These two are likely slated for starting duties. But their presence could easily push down other depth players at the position, therefore jeopardizing Watson’s spot on the 53-man roster this season.

With age no longer on his side, Watson will have to continue to showcase his value on special teams and as a depth component for the upcoming season.

Here’s how he goes about doing so.

Why Dekoda Watson Improves in 2018

Considering he’s now on the wrong side of 30 years old, there likely isn’t going to be a much higher ceiling for Watson’s abilities. He’s likely lost a step from his impressive 4.56 40-yard time ran at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine.

Still, that doesn’t mean Watson is without merits. In fact, he has quite a few.

Watson’s value will come on special teams, as he saw just 88 defensive snaps last season. On special teams, though, Watson posted a modestly good plus-0.5 overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus. And while his traditional stats aren’t overly impressive (just three tackles), one has to note the importance of occupying gaps and maintaining blocks — numbers that don’t show up in the stat book.

And if San Francisco’s overall special teams grade is to be considered — PFF ranked it No. 5 overall last year — it’s safe to say Watson is doing his job well enough.

Plus, there will be an added bonus working under special teams coordinator Richard Hightower. Remember, continuity is usually a good thing.

Why He Regresses

Age is certainly a concern. But there’s also a possible indication of regression for his on-field efforts. His 2016 overall PFF special teams grade was a full two points higher than what was seen last year.

There’s a lot that could go into the slight regression, namely switching teams and working with an entirely different unit. But it’s equally possible Watson is starting to show signs of wearing down.

Admittedly, I didn’t go back and watch a ton of tape on Watson’s play this season. For what I did watch, nothing stood out in a good or bad way, which is OK for most special teamers. But the one issue here is the 49ers never asked Watson to do a whole lot more on defense, especially when they were dealing with some attrition at the linebacker position.

That could be a pointer, even though Watson’s typical role has been on special teams only during his career.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

Projected Impact with the 49ers in 2018

There’s no guarantee Watson even makes the 49ers’ 53-man roster this season. He would count for a mere $666,667 in dead money if cut, which wouldn’t set back the cap-rich Niners at all this offseason.

Plus, those added bodies could mean Watson’s role is taken over by another depth linebacker, say Brock Coyle or Korey Toomer.

San Francisco values its special teamers. That sounds kind of cliche, but it’s highly probable the team wants to retain most of its contributors that helped get this unit to a top-five spot in 2017. Watson would fit into the equation even though many special teamers often wind up being depth pieces teams like to develop into potential starters/rotation guys.

Should Watson make the final cut, he’ll likely revert back to the kind of role he had last season. It’s an important one too. And even if he’s not making the flashy plays, providing those consistent blocking abilities and managing lane assignments could be vital.

Next: Predicting 49ers' Week 1 depth chart, 53-man roster

Especially if the Niners want to maintain a similar special teams prowess in 2018.