49ers NFL Draft preview: Team with many needs could target top defenders
This item is part of a series on the positions the 49ers will look to fill in the upcoming draft and the players that are the best fits at those spots. Today's position:
Middle linebacker or "Mike" linebacker
Description: This is the traffic cop of the defensive front seven and as such usually is an experienced, instinctive player. The middle linebacker has to work through more blocks than the weak-side linebacker and must be physical enough -- and powerful enough -- to take on pulling guards and fullbacks. He usually lines up in alignment with the opposing guard on the strong side of the offensive formation.
Who's there now: NaVorro Bowman. He fits every qualification for the job and essentially has been the "Mike" in the 49ers' previous 3-4 system for years. The only caveat is that he is three years removed from a multi-ligament knee injury that knocked him out of the 2014 season and then missed most of 2016 with an Achilles tendon tear. There's no sign that Bowman has had trouble returning from the latest injury. Indeed, he took part in the 49ers’ conditioning test April 10 and is expected to be on hand when team drills begin two weeks later. But until he's back in a live-hitting situation, there at least is some doubt about the centerpiece of the defense. After Bowman, Malcolm Smith has the most experience at linebacker but is expected to be the weak-side starter. Brock Coyle, Dekoda Watson, Carl Bradford and Shayne Skov are other options on the roster.
Need level: 5.1
Perfect fit: Alabama's Reuben Foster is fast, aggressive and a leader on the field, and he's drawn comparisons to former 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis. As was the case when Willis was coming out of Mississippi in 2007, Foster might be considered a little small for the position at 229 pounds and he's recovering from shoulder surgery that prevented him from taking part in workouts in the run-up to the draft. Those concerns, plus the fact that he was booted from the scouting combine after a heated exchange with hospital technician, might prevent him from being a top 5 selection. But if the 49ers were to trade out of the No. 2 pick, he's definitely a person of interest. Others: Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt, Jarrad Davis, Florida; Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State; Anthony Walker, Northwestern.