After Week 2 of the 2018 NFL Preseason, the San Francisco 49ers traded outside linebacker Eli Harold to the Detroit Lions for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Although most analysts and fans agree the San Francisco 49ers’ greatest deficiency for the upcoming 2018 season is the team’s lack of pass rush, the Niners dealt one of their top potential pass rushers — SAM linebacker Eli Harold — to the Detroit Lions for very minimal compensation.
Earlier this offseason, one self-proclaimed analyst predicted Harold wouldn’t make the 49ers’ initial 53-man roster; still, the decision is somewhat surprising due to the lack of quarterback pressure the 49ers created over the first two weeks of the 2018 NFL Preseason.
When San Francisco selected Harold in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft, they drafted a college defensive end who excelled as a pass rusher, but lacked ability as a run-stopper on the outside.
During his three seasons with the team, Harold became just the opposite — an outisde linebacker who was good at setting the edge, but amassed just five sacks over 48 NFL games:
One positive trait for the 49ers’ starting outside linebacker was his durability. Harold didn’t miss a game over his three seasons in the league; however, his ability to stay on the field may have been the reason 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan decided to part ways with Harold before his fourth NFL season began.
Due to the Harold’s playing time, he was eligible the NFL’s “Proven Performance Escalator” this season. As opposed to a cap hit of under $1 million, Harold was scheduled to cost San Francisco $2.1 million in 2018.
Given that Harold was struggling to make the final 53-man roster, and was very unlikely to return to the team next season as a free agent, Lynch and Shanahan chose to get what they could for the former University of Virginia star — which wasn’t much.
My offseason article on Harold’s future with the team touched on the linebacker’s contract situation, but mostly focused on San Francisco’s assets at inside linebacker. I expected the 49ers would transition one of their versatile inside linebackers to the outside, however preseason injuries haven’t afforded the team that chance.
During last Saturday’s game, Houston primarily ran out of 11 personnel and 20 personnel, which kept San Francisco’s SAM linebackers on the sideline. While Harold played 27 defensive snaps — mostly as a defensive end — linebackers Mark Nzeocha and Pita Taumoepenu both played single-digit snaps on defense, while LB Dekoda Watson was on the field for 11 pass-rushing snaps.
49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh should have ample opportunity to test new starting SAM linebacker Nzeocha — along with other potential opening day starters — on Saturday, as the Indianapolis Colts utilize their pair of tight ends in 12 personnel at near the highest rate in the league.
The San Francisco 49ers just removed Harold as the first-team SAM linebacker on the team’s unofficial depth chart, with Nzeocha and Taumoepenu listed as the current second and third-stringers. But don’t be surprised if veteran linebacker Brock Coyle or rookie LB Fred Warner get preseason playing time at the position as well.