49ers camp preview: Malcolm Smith's return brings linebackers to full strength


The 49ers’ coaching staff was devastated a year ago when starting inside linebacker Malcolm Smith, the team’s biggest free-agent pickup on defense, was lost for the season with a torn pectoral early in training camp.

Smith is back, though he will open training camp on the non-football injury list with a lower-leg injury. The 49ers expect Smith to be back early in camp.

The 49ers were determined to accumulate better depth in the offseason to withstand the two-game suspension Reuben Foster will serve at the beginning of the season.

Who’s Here

Inside -- Reuben Foster, Malcolm Smith, Fred Warner, Brock Coyle, Korey Toomer, Elijah Lee, Mark Nzeocha Outside -- Eli Harold, Dekoda Watson, Pita Taumoepenu

Best Of The Bunch

When Foster was on the field as a rookie, he was a dynamic presence in the middle of the team’s defense. But Foster missed six games due to injuries. He will not play a full season this year, either. Foster will serve a two-game suspension for violations of the league’s policies on substances of abuse and personal conduct after offseason charges of possession of marijuana in Alabama and an assault weapon in California. He will immediately step back into the lineup in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs and will likely lead the team in tackles and big hits.

Top Camp Battle

Warner vs. Toomer vs. Coyle. The 49ers anticipated losing Foster for a period of time this season, and they took measures to strengthen their depth at inside linebacker. Smith appears locked in as the middle linebacker. And in Foster’s absence, there figures to be good competition at the weakside position. One of these three players will be the starter in Week 1 at the Minnesota Vikings. Warner, a third-round draft pick from BYU, excels in coverage – a must for a three-down linebacker in today’s NFL. Toomer, a four-year veteran, started 16 games over the past two seasons with the Chargers. The 49ers also re-signed Coyle, who started 10 games last season at middle linebacker after the club released NaVorro Bowman. Coyle, originally added for his special-teams ability, got better and better throughout the season. He did not participate in the offseason program as he rehabbed from shoulder surgery.

Long Shot

Taumoepenu did not make any kind of impact as a rookie. He appeared in just two games and did not register a tackle or any statistics. Instead, most of his work was behind the scenes as he was devoted to getting stronger and learning the NFL game. The 49ers drafted Taumoepenu in the sixth round last year for his ability to rush the passer. He recorded nine sacks in his final season at Utah. The door is open for a young edge rusher to emerge, and Taumoepenu can work his way up the depth chart to become a factor in the 49ers’ nickel defense.


Harold returns as the starting “Sam” linebacker. The 49ers’ coaching staff likes Harold, and they would like to give him a chance to emerge as an every-down player. The team believes Harold can contribute as a pass-rusher, too. Foster will regain his starting role upon his return to action in Week 3. If Warner wins the job to open the season, he will try to make a case for remaining in the lineup – or, at least, earning a specialized role in the team’s nickel package.

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