The San Francisco 49ers are going to have a minor logjam at linebacker when Reuben Foster returns in Week 3, meaning an effect on the rookie, Fred Warner.
Early in training camp, the San Francisco 49ers had something of an overstock at inside linebacker, highlighted by a no-longer-facing-long-term-suspension-or-release second-year pro Reuben Foster and the veteran, Malcolm Smith.
Before the Niners knew what the outcome of Foster’s offseason legal issues would be, they grabbed former BYU linebacker Fred Warner in Round 3 of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Warner’s exceptional coverage skills are ideal in today’s pass-happy NFL. He’s the prototypical hybrid — a player who can cover like a safety but can still operate as a run-stuffing tackler in the box.
With Foster poised to return from his two-game suspension in Week 3, however, San Francisco’s defense will have some juggling to do.
At least in the long run.
Smith missed the team’s season opener in Week 1 with a hamstring injury and has seen zero regular-season field time since being signed as a free agent early in 2017. He’s currently listed as questionable, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him out until after Foster returns.
Either way, one thing is certain — Warner needs to start.
Warner’s NFL debut during the Niners’ 24-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1 went about as well as one could have hoped for a first-year defender. The rookie led San Francisco’s defense with 12 tackles, one of which was for a loss, as well as a forced fumble the 49ers were able to recover.
It’s pretty clear Warner should retain a starting MIKE role upon Foster’s return. And with Foster pegged as the would-be starter along the strong-side (SAM) spot, one can see how defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s inside linebacking corps is about as promising as it gets.
Smith, though, is a bit of a wild card in the 49ers’ linebacker trio. While the loss of backup linebacker Brock Coyle (concussion) and despite the one-year free-agent signing of Terence Garvin this week, the Niners are still thin at this vital position group.
While Week 2 will still see an absent Foster, and possibly Smith, the following week might illustrate how Saleh implements his WILL, MIKE and strong-side (SAM) trio.
Evaluating what former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger pointed out, the San Jose Mercury News‘ Cam Inman described what he thought Saleh’s long-term vision would be:
"Baldinger echoed what others are envisioning: Warner is locked in as the “Mike” linebacker, Foster will play the “Will” weak-side spot, and as for the “Sam” strong-side role, that could fall to Smith, remain with Mark Nzeocha or go to newcomer Terence Garvin."
Foster’s eventual return and Warner’s ascension force the Niners into this three-way battle for the SAM linebacker spot — a competition between Smith, Mark Nzeocha (Week 1’s starter here) and the newly acquired Garvin.
Smith commands the highest pay out of this trio, so following the money would suggest he winds up getting the starting nod. But his health has been a concern over the past year-plus, meaning the added depth is necessary.
The playmaking prowess at the inside positions, however, are not. Foster and Warner could be one of the NFL’s more dynamic tandems at linebacker, emulating what San Francisco once had at this position just a few short years ago with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.