49ers roster 2023: Marcelino McCrary-Ball has his sights on 53-man squad

Despite a strong preseason, Marcelino McCrary-Ball couldn't quite crack the 49ers' regular-season linebacker corps. But that could change in 2023.
San Francisco 49ers v Houston Texans
San Francisco 49ers v Houston Texans / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

After impressing during the preseason a year ago, Marcelino McCrary-Ball might finally get a shot at cracking the 49ers' 53-man roster as a reservist in 2023.

One of the cooler moments from the San Francisco 49ers' 2022 NFL preseason was when then-rookie linebacker Marcelino McCrary-Ball, an undrafted free-agent signing out of Indiana, intercepted Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love in both teams' opening exhibition game.

McCrary-Ball displayed some notable athleticism, too, and one might have figured that play would be enough to earn him a spot on the Niners' 53-man roster.

Even though it was a gift of an interception, McCrary-Ball took full advantage of being in the right place at the right time:

But that play wasn't enough for the rookie to survive pre-Week 1 roster cuts. In fact, San Francisco was so stacked at linebacker, it wouldn't have had room for McCrary-Ball anyway without losing an established veteran with a key role on defense.

As a result, McCrary-Ball spent his rookie season on the practice squad.

Things have changed ever so slightly entering 2023, though, and that could benefit McCrary-Ball to a large degree.

Why Marcelino McCrary-Ball makes 49ers' 53-man roster (and why he doesn't)

The 49ers lost one of their key linebackers from the last four years, Azeez Al-Shaair, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in NFL free agency.

Al-Shaair was the primary strong-side (SAM) backer in formation with Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner, and even though the SAM doesn't play frequently with the Niners often being in three-wide nickel packages, Al-Shaair would be the go-to option if either Warner or Greenlaw suffered some sort of injury.

That was the case in 2021, too, when Greenlaw missed the bulk of the regular season with a groin issue.

At any rate, the importance is there for the role, and it's a spot that's wide open.

McCrary-Ball could potentially separate himself from the competition for this spot if he relies on his speed and prior experience playing as a cornerback. At 6-foot-0 and 214 pounds, he isn't exactly the best option to take on big-bodied tight ends in the receiving game, and going after bulldozing running backs isn't his forte either.

But McCrary-Ball can cover. And he's feisty enough, too, to suggest he can still hold his own against those bigger tight ends and tailbacks despite being at a disadvantage.

Speaking of disadvantages, though, there are plenty of other better-suited linebackers who could occupy that spot, including two veterans in Oren Burks and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles.

Read more: Oren Burks to play more than just special teams for 49ers in 2023

Those two have already filled in as the Niners' No. 3 linebacker before, and to make things even more challenging, San Francisco used two NFL Draft picks on backers last April, landing Dee Winters and Jalen Graham on day three.

All four could easily threaten (and push off) McCrary-Ball from the 53-man roster.

He might have the odds stacked against him, but McCrary-Ball is surely in the mix and is far beyond just a training camp invitee, meaning a strong preseason again could telegraph into an actual spot on the 49ers' regular-season squad.

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