49ers’ 2019 ‘Who Is?’ series: Linebacker Mark Nzeocha

Mark Nzeocha #53 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Mark Nzeocha #53 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images) /

Linebacker Mark Nzeocha carved out a nice little niche on the San Francisco 49ers roster last season. But will that carry over well enough into 2019 amid a number of personnel changes?

Believe it or not, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Mark Nzeocha was nearly a Pro Bowler after his 2018 efforts.

If you’re not overly familiar with Nzeocha, it’s OK. He was a finalist for the NFC squad, thanks largely to a hefty amount of votes for his efforts on special teams, many of which came from Europe, as Nzeocha was born in Germany.

True, special teamers don’t always get a lot of love. But the Niners ended up liking Nzeocha for more than just his special teams contributions. By the end of the season, Nzeocha was San Francisco’s starting strong-side (SAM) linebacker, finishing the year with three starts under his belt and even one sack.

Mark Nzeocha Defense & Fumbles Table
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2 yr2 yrSFO263111.02217511

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/20/2019.

Entering his third year with the 49ers, Nzeocha will be hard pressed to retain a roster spot, due both to a number of personnel additions as well as a change in what the team is doing, defensively.

While special teams are important, can Nzeocha hold onto a reserve role while continuing to perform well in this vital third unit?

Why Mark Nzeocha Improves in 2019

Nzeocha’s 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame was suited well enough to handle the line-of-scrimmage rigors primarily in a backup role last season. Yet he did manage to oust the veteran, Malcolm Smith, from that role. It’s something to consider.

At 29 years old, Nzeocha pretty much is who he is. Sure, there could be a few on-field improvements. But he’s basically a special teams ace with the ability to provide some solid defensive-backup versatility when needed.

And with San Francisco’s linebackers employing more “stack” formations this season, perhaps Nzeocha finds himself operating in more open space, which he seems to do well on special teams.

Why Mark Nzeocha Regresses

That switch — the wide-9 alignment — could also have negative effects on Nzeocha. With the 49ers linebackers playing more off ball, they’re far more interchangeable than 2018.

San Francisco inked Kwon Alexander in free agency, while also grabbing Arkansas’ Dre Greenlaw in the NFL Draft. Both are higher on the pecking order than Nzeocha, who still has both Smith and Elijah Lee to deal with in training camp.

Nzeocha’s special teams abilities are great. But those alone won’t be enough to keep him safe. So, barring injury to players elsewhere, he’ll have a tough time asserting himself on the defensive depth chart.

Fewer reps means fewer chances to impress the coaching staff.

Chances of Making the 49ers’ 53-Man Roster in 2019

The Niners inked Nzeocha to a three-year deal earlier this offseason, so they clearly like his abilities. That said, San Francisco hasn’t been shy about parting ways with recently signed/re-signed players if it finds something better.

Should that happen, it’s a $750,000 dead-cap hit, with just under $1 million in cap savings.

Negligible numbers, for now. What matters more, though, is how the position battle pans out at linebacker.

Depth is important, yes. But the additions of both Alexander and Greenlaw complicate matters for Nzeocha. Smith spent OTAs working as the first-team unit’s SAM linebacker, so that suggests he’s ahead of Nzeocha, too.

Most likely, the 49ers keep six linebackers on their 53-man roster, and special teams will have a lot to say about the backups. Nzeocha has an edge there, but it’s not hard to see why the crowd will make it difficult.

Next. 3 enticing position battles to watch during 49ers training camp. dark

For now, one might guess Nzeocha is on the stronger side of the roster bubble, but he’s still on the bubble nonetheless.