San Francisco 49ers

49ers' best draft fits: Next up, 'Mike' linebacker

This item is part of a series on the positions the 49ers will look to fill in the upcoming draft and the players that best fit those spots. They will be published in order of need.

Next up: middle or 'Mike' linebacker.

Description: In an ideal situation, the 49ers defense would have two inside linebackers swift enough to cover tailbacks from sideline to sideline and powerful enough to take on pulling guards and centers. The middle, or "Mike," linebacker is typically more sturdy than the speedier weak-side, or "Will," linebacker because he usually deals with more traffic and oncoming blockers. However, with offenses spreading more and more pass catchers across the formation and with coverage assignments becoming just as essential as run-stopping duties, the respective profiles of "Mike" and "Will" linebackers have become more ambiguous. San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said as much last year. "If you look at Seattle, their 'Will' linebacker, K.J. Wright, is 6-4, 245 pounds," he said. "If you look at Jacksonville, the 'Will' linebacker (Telvin Smith) was 6-3, 215 pounds. If you look at Atlanta’s 'Mike' linebacker (Deion Jones), he’s 220 pounds. (Seattle's 'Mike' linebacker) Bobby Wagner sits at 240. So there’s no height-weight parameter. But what there is, is one person can communicate and the other one might be able to communicate, but one is better than the other. Let’s just put it that way."

Who's there now. The 49ers shouldn't have a need at the position after using a first-round pick on Reuben Foster last year. Foster's availability this season, however, is fuzzy after he was arrested in January and then again in February. The Santa Clara County District Attorney's office is expected to make a decision on charging Foster in the more serious of the two cases -- police initially charged him with domestic violence, making threats and possession of an assault weapon -- this week. That should provide some measure of clarity, although the NFL still can suspend Foster no matter what he's charged with or whether he's charged at all. And that's independent of the misdemeanor marijuana charge he is facing in Alabama. All of which is to say that the 49ers can't rely on him at this point. Setting Foster aside, Malcolm Smith is fully recovered from last year's pectoral tear. He could play "Mike" linebacker, but the team would prefer to use his speed at the "Will" spot. Brock Coyle proved to be a strong backup last season and could step in if Foster were unable to play. Korey Toomer, Elijah Lee, Mark Nzeocha and Donavin Newsom round out the position.

Best fits:

* Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech. He's 6-5, 253 pounds, and at just 19 years old he presumably still is growing into his body. He played middle linebacker for the Hokies and would be an excellent complement to Smith if he played there with the 49ers. The beauty of Edmunds, however, is that in a scenario in which Smith and Foster both were available, he has the length and strength to play on the edge of the defense, perhaps at strong-side linebacker.

* Roquan Smith, Georgia. He's an entirely different body type at slightly under 6-1 and his best spot probably is at "Will" linebacker. Smith, however, was ultra productive in the toughest conference in the nation. He's drawn comparisons to the Falcons' Jones, who is even smaller and who plays the "Mike" spot well in Atlanta.

* Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State. He's built like Edmunds, and both players have drawn comparisons to former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. The only reason he isn't usually listed as highly as the two linebackers ahead of him is because he only became a full-time starter last season.

* Darius Leonard, South Carolina State. He handled himself well at the Senior Bowl and has long arms -- 34 1/2 inches -- that should allow him to fend off blockers. He could be taken in the second or third rounds.

* Malik Jefferson, Texas. He led Texas with 110 tackles last season and could line up at either of the two inside linebacker spots in San Francisco's scheme.

Others: Jerome Baker, Ohio State; Oren Burks, Vanderbilt; Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Western Kentucky; Frank Ginda, San Jose State.

Previous reviews:

'Leo' Defensive end