The 2018 San Francisco 49ers have a strong first squad of linebackers coming into mini-camp, and the battle for the reserve unit should be entertaining during the preseason.

Indeed, the 49ers need two things from their linebackers:

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1. An injury-free season.

Last year, veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith was injured early in training camp. Rookie Reuben Foster missed four games due to an ankle injury he received in Week 1, and two games due to an injured rib.

Other linebackers who missed games due to injury were Dekoda Watson, Pita Taumoepenu, Donavin Newsom (released on April 30, 2018) and Jimmie Gilbert (also released on April 30, 2018).

2. Greater depth for the second squad.

I went through at least four different possibilities for a second squad, and it's clear the team does not have the depth necessary for the position. Before the start of training camp, general manager John Lynch needs to find a way to bring a quality veteran like Blake Martinez or Reggie Ragland to Santa Clara.

First Squad


Reuben Foster
Following the 2017 draft, Foster looked to be the heir apparent at linebacker for the team, as veterans Malcolm Smith and NaVorro Bowman were penciled in as the starting duo.

After Smith injured his pectoral muscle in training camp, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had no choice but to throw Foster into the fires of professional football.

Foster exceeded the expectations.

After recovering from his ankle injury, Foster came back in Week 7 against the Dallas Cowboys and had two tackles, but injured a rib and left the game in the third quarter. Against Arizona, he unleashed the power of a million exploding suns and racked up 13 solo tackles.

There is one thing I'm hoping Foster can improve between now and the start of the season.

He is often overly aggressive on the field, which is a curse and a blessing for a linebacker. When he takes a nanosecond to read the play and channel his aggression, he blows up lead blockers and brings the ball carrier immediately to the turf.

On the other hand, I've watched him overshoot the gap by five yards, allowing the running back to get into the second level for a long run. It's not a knock on his game, but a small flaw that probably worked for him in college which has carried over into the pros. Foster needs to work with his coaches to become a more patient linebacker.

Malcolm Smith
I was excited to see the Bowman-Smith linebacker combination last season. I also thought that Foster would have had a little more time to grow, as he'd rotate in for either player from time to time.

Alas, what could have been a deadly trio never materialized.

The Great Magnet sees fit to right last year's wrong, and allow the world to witness the Smith-Foster inside linebacker duo, which could be a lethal combination for opposing teams.

Like any inside linebacker, Smith's biggest challenge this season is remaining relatively healthy. He's playing the strong side, so he'll be taking on more of the lead blockers and cleaning up the havoc the 49ers' defensive line can cause in the backfield.

Eli Harold
Over the last year, we've seen general manager John Lynch politely ask Trent Baalke-era players to hit the bricks. Harold is one of the few Baalke stragglers still with the 49ers, despite three seasons of average play. Since entering the league in 2015, he's totaled 57 solo tackles and five sacks in 48 games.

Harold hasn't done anything in the NFL that shows he has a higher ceiling, but the 49ers cannot afford to release him or relegate him to the second squad just yet. He has experience playing both SAM and the edge, and Saleh needs a reliable player at both spots.

Lynch should consider Harold in a package trade for another linebacker, as maybe a fresh start in a new location could rejuvenate Harold's career.

Second Squad


Fred Warner
I wasn't shocked the 49ers drafted an inside linebacker a few weeks ago but did take a step back when I heard it was Fred Warner from BYU. It was hard to believe he was still on the board in the third round.

Warner may not be ready to start, as he has a handful of flaws coming into the NFL. He often lacks aggressiveness, and his game film shows him taking poor angles. With NFL offenses chock full of new concepts, a speedy, instinctual linebacker like Warner could prove to be a diamond in the rough for the 49ers.

Further, playing behind Foster and Smith allows Warner more time to develop. I expect Warner to play sparingly in the first four games of the season, but he'll see more of the field as the year wears on.

Brock Coyle
It's with great reluctance that I'm adding Coyle to the second squad. I'm going to take a lot of cheap internet heat, but the 49ers should have parted with Coyle about 15 minutes after the season finished.

Yet, in typical 49er fashion, the executive office signed him to a 3-year contract on March 14, 2018. Unfortunately, that means he'll hang around for at least another year.

The facts surrounding Coyle's play are evident. He was a Band-Aid for an injury-laden linebacker corps last season. More importantly, he lacks the needed skill to play in Saleh's defense. Time and again, I'd watch the all-22 film and see Coyle out of position or giving up his inside shoulder to a lead block which ultimately removes him from making a play.

Pro Football Focus gave him a 41.3-grade last year, ranking him the 70th best linebacker in the NFL. He had a series of atrocious performances in weeks six through 10 last season, including an absolutely brutal showing against Washington. He played 74 snaps on defense, had a difficult time in pass coverage and scrounged three tackles.

If the NFL suspends Foster for a few games, Saleh will have to start Coyle during that stretch. However, since the Kansas City Chiefs are always interested in below average 49ers, I'd suggest trading Coyle and Eli Harold for Reggie Ragland.

Pita Taumoepenu
The good news for Pita was he made the 53-man roster last season. The bad news was he was often a healthy scratch on game day. He did, however, appear in back-to-back games against Indianapolis and Washington.

With just a few weeks until the start of training camp, Pita has an opportunity to show that he's a better linebacker than Harold and can play both SAM and the edge effectively. He'll need a solid camp and four preseason games where he plays out of his mind. Otherwise, expect Pita to remain a reserve player and fill in for Harold as needed.

Mark Nzeocha
Nzeocha is entering his fourth year in professional football and looks to have a home on the 49ers' special teams. He played in 10 games last year mostly on the special teams unit. Lynch signed him to an extension on January 26, 2018. Nzeocha is another player like Raheem Mostert who will see the field on special teams, occasionally popping in to play linebacker.

Bubble Squad


Korey Toomer
Nothing about signing veteran linebacker Korey Toomer gave me the chills. In fact, it was just the opposite. Once again, the 49ers signed a sub-par player and are selling him as a 'talented player.'

It's hard for me to feign excitement about a four-year veteran who's played for five teams and has 16 career starts. I don't have a problem with the team adding depth even if the plan is to bring in bodies for training camp. If the 49ers want to compete, management needs to stop bringing in bodies for critical positions and start seeking ability and skill.

If Toomer makes the roster, he'll be used sparingly as a linebacker, and probably fill in on special teams.

Dekoda Watson
I went back and forth on Watson making the final roster this year, due in part to his nine-year experience. The 49ers can use a veteran in reserve just in case Foster, or Smith misses a game.

Unfortunately, while he's played in 103 games, he's only started in seven games. Throughout his career, Watson has 83 solo tackles and four sacks. Like Coyle and Toomer, Watson isn't what the team needs at linebacker. He doesn't have a track record of production but could play a key role on special teams.

Cut


Elijah Lee
Someone from the linebacker unit has to get cut, and unfortunately, that's Elijah Lee. The 49ers had Lee on the active roster for 14 games last year, and he notched three solo tackles and one assist. Lee simply does not have the numbers or experience to remain on the roster.