The 49ers might have an international audience for their preseason game Saturday against the Colts.
That’s because Mark Nzeocha, who was born in Neusitz, Germany, is slated to start at outside linebacker after the team on Thursday traded starting linebacker Eli Harold to the Detroit Lions. The 49ers will receive a conditional late-round draft pick in 2020, according to a report from MLive.com.
Questions remain about San Francisco’s decision to move on from Harold, who started 25 games the past three seasons after joining the team as a third-round draft choice. For now, Nzeocha is expected to set the edge with the first-team defense in Indianapolis.
But the team could mix and match personnel from multiple positions as coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch figure out how to winnow the roster to 53 players by Sept. 1.
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“I won’t say it was just about Eli,” Shanahan said Thursday. “It has to do a lot with how we think we’re going to use people on game day, who’s going to be up between defensive linemen, outside linebackers, inside linebackers. All three of those positions kind of play together and we’ve got some numbers issues at certain spots.“
The “sam” linebacker is generally limited to base defensive packages and plays roughly a third of the snaps. It comes off for an extra defensive back when the offense brings on a third receiver.
Harold, who has five sacks in three seasons, had been subbed during throwing downs in favor of pass rushers like Cassius Marsh and Jeremiah Attaochu throughout training camp. The 49ers could use the vacant roster spot on veteran Elvis Dumervil, who remains a free agent after leading San Francisco with 6.5 sacks last season. The team in the spring decided against picking up the option on Dumervil’s contract for 2018.
Shanahan indicated the move wasn’t necessarily a vote of confidence for Nzeocha, who appears to have a strong chance at making the final roster after being signed off the Cowboys’ practice squad last September.
“Nzeocha has been having a good camp, but no, it’s about a lot of things,” Shanahan said. “It has to do with how much you’re on the field in base personnel, to nickel personnel, to special teams, to who’s the backup to the D-linemen, and to the SAMs, and the inside linebackers. All of those guys are interchangeable in how you use them. It’s pretty complicated.”
Nzeocha was a seventh-round pick of the Cowboys in 2015. He found his way to America with the German national team as a safety in 2009 after winning the European Junior Championships in 2008. He caught the eye of coaches from the University of Wyoming during the Junior World Cup in Canton, Ohio, and wound up landing a scholarship. His younger brother, Eric, also played at Wyoming and currently plays linebacker for the Buccaneers.
“Football has grown in Germany, for sure,” said Nzeocha, who visits his family in Frankfurt every offseason. “Just on social media, you definitely get recognized.”
The 49ers added Nzeocha (pronounced nuh-ZAH-chuh) to play inside linebacker last season, but he moved outside at the start of training camp this summer.
“I’ve embraced it. I thought it was a good move,” he said.
Harold was well-liked in the locker room and a close friend of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. The two trained together in Hawaii during the offseason and have been teammates since Buckner came into the league in 2016.
“Shoot, it’s sad to see one of your brothers go,” Buckner said. “I was shocked when it happened. He called me last night. But that’s the nature of the business. It’s not up to you; it’s not up to the guys on the team.”
Harold was the second player to join Colin Kaepernick in kneeling for the national anthem in 2016, along with safety Eric Reid, to protest racial discrimination and police brutality. Kaepernick and Reid remained unsigned. Harold has stood during the anthem before the first two preseason games.
Sherman to debut – Shanahan is planning to have a number of key players back in the fold for Saturday’s exhibition game, which is generally when starters get the most playing time. The biggest name of the group is cornerback Richard Sherman, who would be making his San Francisco debut.
“We’re playing him with the starters and we’d like the starters to play the first half,” Shanahan said. “I’d like to keep Richard on the same plan. He hasn’t been out as much as everyone, so we’ll see how it goes. We’ll monitor his reps. ... Hopefully, he gets enough so that he feels comfortable. I’m leaning a lot on Sherm with this. He’s finally got to the point where we feel he can go and not have setbacks.”
▪ Defensive lineman Arik Armstead returned to practice this week following his hamstring injury suffered early in training camp and is expected to play. Same for linebacker Malcolm Smith, who tweaked his hamstring in the preseason opener.
▪ Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas progressed through the league’s concussion protocol this week and is expected to suit up after rejoining practice. Tackle Garry Gilliam, who also suffered a concussion in the preseason opener, has not been cleared and has been ruled out.
▪ Shanahan said slot cornerback K’Waun Williams’ status was up in the air after suffering an ankle injury earlier this month. Rookie fifth-round pick D.J. Reed has started in the slot in Williams’ stead.