Linebacker: Who Stays and Who Goes
When the merry month of May rolls around, it starts to feel we are in the homestretch of the NFL’s water torture-like offseason. Soon enough, we’ll be shoulder deep in OTA and mini-camp reports, wallowing in a chaotic news cycle of practice updates that include the precise number of interceptions Brian Hoyer threw in a seven-on-seven drill.
San Francisco 49ers fans haven’t experienced an offseason like this in years; the new regime is clearing a roster that’s been devoid of talent and bringing on new faces to rebuild the franchise. They’ve dumped players that are unneeded or lacked the ability to play professional football – Carl Bradford and Wynton McManis – but also said goodbye to players who never had a chance to show off their skills – notably Eric Rogers. What we’re seeing is roster leadership from John Lynch, rather than uneducated, indecisive guessing on a player’s ability or injury we saw too often from Trent Baalke.
For the next few weeks, let’s delve into the position groups and see who may stay and who may go. Also, let’s agree that this series of articles may not reflect the speed in which players are coming and going. It’s possible the 49ers release or add a player before you read this article.
As noted before, the 49ers committed an unknown, but grievous sin that angered the football gods. In response, the gods gave us a linebacker corps with more injuries than tackles. It didn’t help that Baalke failed to move Marcus Rush to the active roster in December 2016, and instead signed two linebackers with a combined total of 2 career tackles.
We know the 49ers will keep NaVorro Bowman and Reuben Foster, but who else may stay and who’s on their way out?
First to Go – Ray-Ray Armstrong
Baalke made a lot of odd acquisitions as general manager, and Ray-Ray Armstrong is one addition I never understood. The Raiders waived him on November 24, 2015, and Baalke immediately claimed him on November 25, 2015. Armstrong, having little NFL experience, dressed for five games with the 49ers in 2015, but did not register a statistic.
Last season, Armstrong played in two games for the 49ers and went on season-ending injured reserve on September 20, 2016. In one of Baalke’s final moves to stick it to the sun-crisped Levi’s Stadium fans, he signed an injured Armstrong to a two-year contract extension on December 19, 2016.
Over six seasons, Armstrong played in 48 games, starting in five, and racked up 50 tackles and one sack. That’s just over one tackle per game. Indeed, Reuben Foster will surpass Armstrong’s career numbers in about four games and expect the 49ers brass to cut Armstrong before OTA’s begin on May 22.
Up Next - Ahmad Brooks
Way back when nobody had it better than us, Ahmad Brooks made a Pro Bowl. But, that’s the high watermark in Brooks’ career, and he’s yet to recapture that magic. Brooks had a drastic drop in production during the 2014 and 2015 season. He had half the number of tackles during those seasons, and he hasn’t had a defensive interception since 2013. In fact, he hasn’t been the same player since Jim Tomsula benched him in December 2015.
Brooks may be on the 90-man roster when training camp starts, but don’t expect him to make the final 53-man roster at the end of August.
Baalke-Era Holdovers – Aaron Lynch and Eli Harold
Something tells me that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are looking forward to removing all traces of the previous failed regimes from the building. Aaron Lynch, entering his fourth season, should be a consistent player for the 49ers. Since 2014, he’s played in 37 games with 19 starts. He has 59 tackles and 14 sacks. Eli Harold is in a similar boat and entering his third season as professional. He has 31 career tackles and three sacks. In 2016, he made 13 starts for the team.
And, that’s the issue with Lynch and Harold: They haven’t shocked the world with their play. If the 49ers can get the same production from rookies Jimmie Gilbert and Donavin Newsom, or four-year veteran Brock Coyle, there’s no reason to keep Lynch and Harold on the roster.
Reuben Foster – So When Does He Start?
Each night before I close my eyes, I think of Reuben Foster blitzing the C-gap against the Seattle Seahawks. He comes around the corner to meet Russell Wilson head on, knocking the “charge-stabilized nanobubbles” from Wilson’s circulatory system. Foster explodes through Wilson’s frame like a slug from a .45; Wilson, in a grey-sky Seattle daze, has to walk around the 50-yard line in search of his cheek pads, mouth guard and chinstrap.
My lord. The room just got uncomfortably warm. Do you feel it, too? I need a moment.
Okay, back now. According to John Lynch, Foster will be a “full go” when training camp comes around. (Source: SiriusXM NFL Radio interview on May 9, 2017) So, we must wonder if and when the 49ers plan to play Foster alongside Bowman immediately or work him onto the field gradually this fall.
It does make sense to bring him along slowly and allow Malcolm Smith and Dekoda Watson to shoulder a bigger load at first. The transition for linebackers from college to the NFL must be incredible; the 49ers would benefit from using him sporadically during the first quarter of the season and increasing his snap count as the season progresses.
Final Linebacker Roster
Nearly every position group is incredibly fluid right now and will be until the end of August. If we had to pick this season’s linebackers today, it probably looks like this: