San Francisco 49ers

49ers notes: Eli Harold to get chance as designated pass rusher

San Francisco’s Eli Harold, left, mostly played linebacker last year. He could get a shot as a pass rusher this year.
San Francisco’s Eli Harold, left, mostly played linebacker last year. He could get a shot as a pass rusher this year. jvillegas@sacbee.com

John Lynch and his staff spent time last year studying pending free-agent pass rushers like Chandler Jones, Melvin Ingram and Jason Pierre-Paul and did the same this year with Ezekiel Ansah.

The result in each case: Their teams placed the franchise tag on the players on the eve of free agency, effectively taking them off the market.

"It shows what a premium there is on that (position)," Lynch said Wednesday.

The cupboard may be nearly as bare during the draft. The best defensive end, North Carolina State's Bradley Chubb, likely will be long gone by the time the 49ers make their first pick while their draft slot might be too early for the next best pass rusher, which most believe will be Marcus Davenport of Texas-San Antonio or Harold Landry from Boston College.

All of which has the 49ers examining in-house options.

One is Eli Harold, who mostly played strong-side linebacker for the team last year. The plan this year is to give Harold, 24, more opportunity at "Leo" defensive end, which is the designated pass rusher in the 49ers' system.

"We think Eli's got some skills," Lynch said. "We felt like he made great progress at the SAM linebacker spot last year, but we do believe he has some rush ability that is untapped. And we need to tap it. And we're going to give him that opportunity."

Harold was considered one of the top defensive end prospects in the 2015 draft and the 49ers used a third-round pick to get him. He started 24 games the last three seasons, but only has five sacks over that span. To be fair, the position he played last year, strong-side linebacker or SAM, often put him in pass coverage and he wasn't always on the field on third downs.

Another possibility is last year's sixth-round pick Pita Taumoepenu, who only was in uniform for two games. Taumoepenu will get a chance at both the Leo and strong-side linebacker spots, coaches have said.

The 49ers began the 2017 season with Arik Armstead as their Leo defensive end on base downs with Elvis Dumervil entering on third-and-long situations. Solomon Thomas, Aaron Lynch and Cassius Marsh also played the position.

The 49ers finished with 30 sacks in 2017; only five teams had fewer.

Ex-linebackers promoted – Longtime linebacker DeMeco Ryans has been promoted to the role Ken Norton Jr. had for less than a week in January.

Ryans, 33, will coach inside linebackers, including prominent pupil Reuben Foster, in 2018. Johnny Holland, the team's linebackers coach in 2017, has a new title: run game coordinator and outside linebackers coach.

The 49ers originally hired Norton, the former Raiders defensive coordinator, to be their inside linebackers coach. Less than a week after that announcement was made, however, the Seahawks asked Norton to be their defensive coordinator, and he accepted the offer.

Ryans' playing career ended in 2015 and the 49ers hired him as a defensive quality control coach, an entry-level position, last season.

Another one-time linebacker, Keena Turner, will join the team's front office as special adviser to the general manager. Turner, 59, has been with the 49ers for more than three decades, first as a linebacker for 11 seasons, and most recently as vice president of football affairs, a position in which Turner was actively involved in the team's alumni program and in player engagement.

"I don’t think there’s a person in our building who understands the 49er way more than Keena," Lynch said.

Et cetera – Lynch said offensive tackle Trent Brown is ahead of schedule in his recovery from shoulder surgery in December. Brown, the team's starter at right tackle, is expected to miss most of the spring practices this year.

* Lynch said the 49ers will meet with agents for most of their own free agents this week, including those who represent running back Carlos Hyde. Hyde, safety Eric Reid and defensive end Tank Carradine are expected to enter free agency on March 14, but Lynch said there's a chance that any of them could return.

* Lynch said the 49ers would be active in free agency but perhaps won't have the "volume" they had last year when he and Kyle Shanahan were rebuilding the roster. "I think we'll be a little more selective," he said.

* Lynch said the 49ers were interested in cornerback Marcus Peters, whom the Chiefs traded to the Rams, but never made an offer. "We felt at some point it was best to duck out," he said. "We’re comfortable with that.”

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